Throughout her career, Cat Power—née Chan Marshall—has shown a knack for fashioning robust soundscapes from very minimal elements, and Wanderer, her first album in six years, is no exception. Sparse bongo drums, light guitar plucking, and restrained piano comprise “In Your Face,” leaving Marshall’s voice unvarnished and naked. On the similarly barebones “Horizon,” she returns to the electronic motifs of 2012’s Sun, entwining an Auto-Tuned echo behind her main vocal in an arresting call and response.
The stripped-down music dovetails with Marshall’s emotional disrobing on topics encompassing notions of home, restlessness, grief, recovery, and strength. She counts herself in the tradition of traveling bluesmen and folk singers, but she increasingly seems to find this roaming lifestyle arduous. On a cover of Rihanna’s “Stay,” she implores a lover to remain by her side, an impractical request for a nomadic musician, whose life can be at once liberating and treacherous. These extremes are represented by the album’s opening and closing tracks: the a cappella title track and the stirring “Wanderer/Exit,” respectively. The former is an untethered and explorative folk song, while the latter is a dirge-y reprise set in a minor key.
Time and again, Marshall has been reductively pegged as a gloomy singer-songwriter struggling with substance abuse and mental illness. But while her vulnerability here lends itself to melancholy, it’s also triumphant and resolute. On “Woman,” she joins tour mate Lana Del Rey for an anthem that doubles as a tribute to Marshall’s recuperation from an autoimmune disease and the resilience of all women. “Doctor said I was not my past/He said I was finally free,” she proclaims. The song ends with a simple maxim, sung repeatedly by Marshall, each time more emphatically: “I’m a woman, I’m a woman, I’m a woman, I’m a woman.”