You Are Free, the sixth release — and first of original material in almost five years — is a culmination of all that Cat Power, alias Chan Marshall, does well. The strength of Marshall’s voice and sentiment is striking, and for the first time in a long time (or ever), it’s also vaguely upbeat. She is known for her emotionally wrought ballads, which have won her a fan base that’s willing to take bullets for her, but it’s the advocacy and prescription for happiness that stands out on this record. Marshall, having been out of the game for so long, seems to have spent that time learning to like herself and her music, and she shows up with a stronger voice and more inventive songs. Whereas past albums have been soundtracks for gray days of hangovers and break-ups, this record is Marshall’s most formidable undertaking yet — the progression through her own liberation.
The album opens with “I Don’t Blame You,” an eerily familiar account of the angst of performing, wherein Marshall both identifies with and forgives through her layered repetition of the refrain. The deliberate press of the piano keys works as a pacing mechanism, with Marshall’s momentum picking up at the end of the song with her confidence in the emotion. It’s as if Marshall has reached a safe distance, seemingly referencing her own performances (“pay them back /for all that shit on stage”) while granting another performer permission to fuck up (“you were swinging your guitar around/ cause they wanted to hear that sound/ but you didn’t want to play”).
You Are Free sees big name collaborations for Marshall, which are only grudgingly admitted. (When I asked her in an interview about Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam contributing vocals on two songs and Dave Grohl’s consistent drumming, she says, “No one was supposed to find out about that,” and then pointedly, “How did you find out about that?”) The third track on the album is one of the strongest, wherein Marshall downshifts, yet retains her listener in changing genre. “To Be A Good Woman” is a mournful, twanging ballad. The flat, dry nature of Marshall’s voice is made for these ballads, and the album is riddled with them towards the end of the record, beginning after the most radio-friendly song and the first single, appropriately titled “He War.”
Until midway through the album, the songs range through growling guitars and the saunter and insistent pound of Grohl’s drums to quiet, country lullabies that has Marshall lamenting in her Georgia twang. Unfortunately, the album falls into an ambient, drowsing abyss, and while the messages of “Maybe Not” and “Evolution” are important in Marshall’s own journey to freedom, they are less so to the listener. As opposed to simply ending, the record trails off, but leaves the listener praying it won’t be another five years.