As Cat Power, singer/songwriter Chan Marshall remains a stranger to us all, five albums into a career of constructing elementary musical highs lined with devastating emotional lows. Hers is a voice that tugs on the heartstrings of boys seeking refuge in its vulnerability and inspires a subtle defiance in others with its determination to kick, scream, and, if need be, crawl under pressure rather than simply sit down. Note by note, you can feel a world of hurt being liberated by her lullaby voice, the dark ruminations spilling out in a way so honey-sweet and naturally bitter you won't realize the damage done until the last note has fallen away.
On You Are Free, Marshall's first album of original Cat Power material since 1998's Moon Pix, the singer digs in her trunk for dressings both old and new. What she emerges with are the down turned lips of a piano balladeer, the solemn introspection of a folk minstrel, and the smiling, optimistic thoughts of a girl, her guitar, and the friends who happened by to support her muse. The combination is at once frustratingly difficult and likely the most beautiful sound you'll hear this year.
"You were swinging your guitar around, cause they wanted to hear that sound that you didn't want to play / I don't blame you, I don't blame you", whispers Marshall on "I Don't Blame You". The song doubles as the album's threshold and most damning moment of interpretation: the delayed voice that apprehensively hovers over the nodding piano arrangement here implicates more than Marshall may have intended -- namely, herself. It's a mirror confession by a not-so thinly veiled public self, staggering a self-conscious second behind and questioning its need to be heard at all.
More often, though, the power in Marshall's humility wins out over its reluctant surface, and she moves forward from the doubt to embrace a more abstract sense of identity. The self-referential vocals are a haunting addition -- definition leaves her lyrics and meaning is achieved instead through the sound of her voice.
Like on "Werewolf", the Michael Hurley cover she redresses with a film of shivering violins. Beautifully arranged, it evokes moments of uncomfortable intimacy, as does "Good Woman", arguably her best effort here. A simple, fingerpicked expression of loves many losses, Marshall nearly cries her way towards the subliminal tension provided by guest Eddie Vedder in the closing verses. Seldom does restraint sing so loudly.
And when tasteful reserve does make a call to rock, Marshall salutes. The toy-piano introduction on "He War" yields to buzzing guitars and marching drumbeats that slide to a chorus in which she out and out pronounces, pulled from the deep of her gut, the bottled up energy of a woman on the run. The momentum spills out, working over to "Free", a skeletal song snapped into motion by an intermittent, new-wave drum machine, and "Speak for Me", which rewrites conventional song structure by leaving loose ends rough and tying them up into the circular chorus at the end.
When she's caught up with herself, and only then, Marshall is settled enough to pull us in and around her retelling of John Lee Hooker's "Keep on Running". How unique, that she can respond to herself -- and her audience -- through the reflexes of another, the slow blues of a man now dead and buried. Her voice isn't like blood; it is the stuff itself, keeping the overbearing emotion here alive.
The tolling "Evolution" runs itself down at the end, Vedder's voice again a shadow to her already deep end. Humming along like two broken-down lovers, the coupling of the pair implies a second-hand hope; if you've come this far, you can only leave by looking up.
You Are Free isn't the perfect album that the Cat Power community had been hoping for; it's a neighborhood of broken homes, empty streets and backstage alleys open for exploration, a wholly dark scene save for the brief flashes of streetlight optimism. In those moments there are entire worlds to step into, though, and while Marshall will be doing her best to keep a step ahead at every turn, it's a pursuit worth taking on.