Chan Marshall has been recording and releasing albums as Cat Power for over twenty years. On Wanderer, her first full-length since leaving Matador, Marshall channels her restlessness into eleven songs that range from thoughtful, uplifting paeans of womanhood to gloomy folk rock and plaintive piano balladry. It’s been six years since 2012’s Sun. This is the longest between album break Marshall has taken, but the songs on Wanderer prove that time hasn’t removed the emotional breadth fans have come to expect from a Cat Power record.
Wanderer is immediately welcoming, easing listeners in with a short acapella title track whose simple beauty provides a sense of depth, conjuring images of wide-open spaces as if setting up a borderless, pristine canvas on which to paint. The two songs that follow, “In Your Face” and “You Get”, have Marshall building instrument-wise on the record’s sparse opener with the low-key, critical “In Your Face” consisting of a guitar, piano, and bongos, and the spirited, reproving “You Get” trading the bongos for a full drum kit while adding a bass and accentuated backing vocals.
An obvious standout, “Woman (feat. Lana Del Rey)”, makes great use of the guest chanteuse. Del Rey provides respectfully understated gentle touches throughout this swaggering number, enhancing Marshall’s languorously dreamy vocals. “I’m a woman of my word, now haven’t you heard? My word’s the only thing I’ve ever needed,” Chan sings just before pushing every ounce of attitude into a potent chorus. Wanderer’s halfway point is reached with a cover of Rihanna’s “Stay”. Utilizing only a piano and string section as accompaniment, Marshall makes the song her own by adding strategically placed breaks and accents to the R&B singer’s pop hit. It’s a poignant moment and a definite highlight.
The album’s second half starts strong with the catchy, folky “Black”, a song featuring Chan accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and her own soulful backing vocals. “Robbin Hood” follows, acting almost as a sister song to “Black” but with the addition of a steady, reverb-heavy tambourine and an occasional, ominous drum. Wanderer’s second side sparseness continues with the simple piano ballad “Nothing Really Matters”. “It’s like nothing really matters, to them,” Marshall sings defeatedly as we hear her foot gently pushing and releasing the sustain pedal. It’s a moment that’s at once haunting and intimate.
As if to remind us of the album’s theme of movement and travel, Wanderer’s last two tracks, the gentle “Me Voy” and the leitmotif “Wanderer/Exit”, have Marshall literally singing her goodbyes, with the former employing resolute chords strummed in an appropriately light, Latin-tinged rhythm and the finale bringing the record to a gentle, cyclical end with despondent horns and Marshall reprising the lyrics from the record’s opener, this time sounding mournful rather than hopeful.
Wanderer is uncompromising in its sentimentality. While there are certainly empathetic moments of empowerment and courage in Chan’s lyrics and vocals, the record’s stark production offers no opportunities for sustained, outright joyfulness during the conceptual journey its title purports to be taking us on. Perhaps that’s the point.