Happy 15th Anniversary to Cat Power’s sixth studio album You Are Free, originally released February 18, 2003.
Recorded over the course of several months in 2002, You Are Free is a sea change for Cat Power. Cat Power, the stage name and band of Chan Marshall, had a history of spontaneous albums, recorded all at once (sometimes even over the course of one evening, like 1998’s Moon Pix). Fiercely independent in the recording process, Marshall insisted on a sound engineer, not a producer, to assist in the creation of You Are Free. The result is deeply personal, a meditation on love lost, the wounds of childhood, and the parasitic nature of fame.
Leading up to You Are Free, Marshall had earned some notoriety for her erratic performances and surly nature. A natural talent, her volatile temperament was frustrating to those desperate to coax material from her. This album, at times, functions as an excuse for that behavior, a mea culpa, but also a plea for compassion.
The opening track “I Don’t Blame You” sets the tone for serene and somber music to unfold. Though she later maintained being influenced by Kurt Cobain, one can easily see Marshall as the subject. The refrain of “I don’t blame you” is like a breakthrough, or perhaps a coping mechanism. Marshall understands the demands of her fans, and despite the toll performance clearly takes on her, she sympathizes with their desires.
The sound of You Are Free is sparse and underproduced. On “Free,” the quick chords are punctuated by the sound of Marshall’s fingers clumsily sliding across guitar strings. The bulk of the album is her aching voice accompanied by a single guitar or piano. The produced magic happens in the vocals, Marshall harmonizing with her own voice. You Are Free stood out as composed and more accessible than Marshall’s previous albums. Here, she is more self-assured, taking control and creating something unique, but never precious.
The stark power of her songwriting and presence is highlighted by the album’s notable contributors. It takes considerable prowess to turn Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl into footnotes. Vedder’s growl adds depth to the melancholy of “Good Woman,” a classic country ballad, and “Evolution,” the dark album closer. Grohl backs her up on drums and bass throughout, playing the role of consummate studio musician to Marshall’s mercurial frontwoman.
On “Good Woman,” Marshall’s heartache sprawls out amongst a lean string arrangement and Vedder’s quiet echo. While a “Good Woman” is a more obvious nod to her Nashville roots, the creepy, meandering “Werewolf,” is a Southern Gothic cover of a Michael Hurley folk standard. Her transient youth provides the inspiration for “Names,” a grim recollection of children whose youth was cut short by drugs, sexual abuse and the general evils of adults. It is the kind of overtly devastating song, sung with a matter-of-fact hollowness that demonstrates the extraordinary pathos of a Cat Power album.
You Are Free was Cat Power’s most commercial album, when it was released in 2003. More rehearsed and intentional sounding than Moon Pix or The Covers Record (2000), the self-conscious restraint in Marshall’s voice is now replaced by a restlessness. She sounds both exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. With her limited range, she is able to execute a piercing emotion that is stark and sensual.
For fans of the Steve Shelley backed Cat Power of the ‘90s, there are tracks like “Shaking Paper” and “Keep On Running.” The insistent drumming and guitar fuzz on “Shaking Paper” have cleaned up grunge vibes. There are moments of raw sloppiness, a misplaced stroke of a piano key here and there. The style that brought Marshall her fame is still the backbone of the album.
A breakup album, written after a boyfriend left her, You Are Free exorcises her demons. At times, it can be Marshall explaining herself and owning what she has made. Regarded as relentlessly sad, she doesn’t soften the blows on You Are Free. And while a woman exposing the unfairness of fame could be perceived as ungrateful or undeserving, Marshall does not shy away from owning her truth. In “Fool,” she sings, “It's not that it's bad, it's not that it's death / It's just that it's on the tip of your tongue and you're so silent.” She understands that there can be triumph and beauty in life, but a world without self-expression is one she can’t live in.