A lot has happened since Chan Marshall – aka Cat Power – released her 2012 record, ‘Sun’. On that record, the singer-songwriter faced pressure from her label, Matador, to appeal to a wider audience, and Marshall managed to achieve that – ‘Sun’ sold 23,000 copies and was her first record to reach the top 10 in the Billboard 200. She took the songs she had written and expanded them, adding bright synths and electronic elements to make her most vibrant record to date and re-establish herself as something more than the “queen of sadcore” – something she had already attempted to do by experimenting with soul and jazz music on 2006’s joyful ‘The Greatest’ and 2008’s ‘Jukebox’. And yet, despite the success of the album, her label didn’t name her as producer on the press sheets, although she not only produced but also financed the project herself.
Marshall faced criticism from her label once again when she presented them with ‘Wanderer’ due to its lack of potential hits, leading to the end of their relationship – which started all the way back in 1996 with ‘What Would the Community Think’. She worked with Elliott Smith producer Rob Schnapf, trusted the album to Domino Records, and toured with Lana del Ray, which led to them collaborating on one of the greatest highlights on the album, ‘Woman’. It’s the only song recorded after her break-up with Matador, and on one level it works as a statement on being used by the industry: “If I had a dime for every time/ Tell me I’m not what you need/If I had a quarter, I would pull it together/And I would take it to the bank and then leave,” she sings. Del Rey’s backing vocals are a wonderful addition to the track that not only reinforce its atmosphere but also contribute to a triumphant sense of union between two female artists with similar experiences. Both have explored femininity in different ways – Marshall is a self-proclaimed tomboy while Del Rey usually depicts more Romantic ideals of womanhood, making the song all the more interesting. But Marshall has also had to revisit and reflect more on the expectations around femininity after becoming a mother, which adds another personal layer to this empowering anthem.
Following her streak of more experimental records, ‘Wanderer’ is a sort of return to form, but with an added sense of maturity and freedom. It’s a collection of intimately gorgeous, well-written, and uncomplicated indie folk songs, but it’s Marshall’s signature delivery that really wins you over. There’s the captivatingly hypnotic ‘In Your Face’ or the bluesy ‘You Get’, where Marshall utilizes her voice wonderfully, stretching out syllables in the chorus or playing around with words. Or the beautiful ‘Horizon’, which is reminiscent of Kacey Musgraves‘s latest album ‘Golden Hour’ in the way it evokes naturalistic images and, of course, its subtle but smart incorporation of auto-tuned backing vocals. And then there are darker, more piano-lead moments like the melancholic ‘Nothing Really Matters’, and especially ‘Stay’, a jazzy cover of the popular Rihanna song. It’s no surprise that what might be the most stand-out track on the album is a cover – Marshall has always done a great job of covering songs (look no further than ‘The Covers Record’ and ‘Jukebox’) – but it’s also the one that’s the most moving, no doubt due to Marshall’s strong personal connection to the original version.
The album also acts as a reminder of how versatile and effective of a storyteller Marshall is, with tracks like the ‘Me Voy’ drawing influences from Spanish music, or the French-inspired ‘Black’, which is the most narratively compelling track here. But surrounding these tunes is the classic central theme expressed in the first and last songs on the album, ‘Wanderer’ and Wanderer/Exit’. The line “with a baby on my mind and a soul in between” is very literal – Marshall spent seven months on the road after she discovered she was pregnant before settling down. But the idea of being a “wanderer” and a “wild heart” that’s evoked here is also very much engraved in the American folk tradition which Marshall not only celebrates, but has now also become part of. ‘Wanderer’ is not Cat Power‘s masterpiece, but it cements her status as one of the great singer-songwriters of our time.
“In a perfect world, I would be in love and have children and have a reason to stay in one place and not do this anymore,” she told New York Magazine in 2006. But she didn’t – she kept on working and wandering. And in 2018, she said in an interview: “I never really accepted that that [being a songwriter] is what I do. And I think [with] this record, after I had my child, I realized, ‘This is who I am.”