Last month, Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, released her first single since 2006, “Ruin.” The track comes from her forthcoming Matador long-player, Sun, which is Marshall’s first album of entirely original material since 2006’s The Greatest.
In her 17 years of recording music as Cat Power, Marshall has evolved from a neurotically nervous confessional songwriter — one who embraced minimalism, worked closely with Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, recording quickly to get out of the studio as soon as possible; she would play shows with her back to the audience, with a reputation for eccentric on-stage behavior.
Through breakdowns and periods of time where she planned to abandon music altogether to become a housewife and mother, Marshall only continued to grow into a more confident and compelling songwriter, eventually moving to blues and soul, embracing her Southern roots. As much as she resented it, Chan always came back to music, eventually becoming one of the most beloved songwriters of her time, yet all the while remaining a mysterious, enigmatic, odd persona.
Now 40 years old, Marshall is up to her ninth studio album, with dozens of excellent early tracks and one-off singles making up her discography as well. Here are 10 that have resonated most over the years — the ones that are most heartbreaking, most crushing, but her greatest to date.
Marshall has always maintained a deep affinity for cover songs, a habit that seems due both to apprehension about her own songwriting and her respect for folk music traditions, the act of preserving and re-creating relics of Americana. Of her vast collection — she has entire albums of cover songs — stand-outs include her beautiful renditions of “Sea Of Love” (John Philip Baptiste), “Stuck inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” (Bob Dylan), “Still In Love with You” (Hank Williams). These were all considered for this list, but ultimately, it was impossible to not stick with Marshall’s own poetry.
10. “Good Woman” from You Are Free (2003)
“Good Woman” is the third track on You Are Free, Chan Marshall’s sixth Cat Power album, one that featured guest appearances from David Grohl on drums and Eddie Vedder on vocals for a couple of songs. “Good Woman” is one of the songs Vedder guests on. From Marshall’s earlier work, it may have seemed impossible for the songs to seem any sadder — but the addition of Vedder does just that, trembling in the back over her minimal, creeping verses that are very directly about her own life: “I want to be a good woman/And I want for you to be a good man/And this is why I will be leaving/And this is why I can’t see you no more.” It’s one of You Are Free’s most heartbreaking, and most beautiful, moments.
9. “The Greatest” from The Greatest (2006)
From the first seconds of Cat Power’s 2006 LP, an album that starts with the title track, “The Greatest,” its clear that this was a warmer album than anything she’d released in the past. It’s also a fitting introduction to the bluesy Memphis Rhythm Band who back her on the album. On The Greatest, Marshall’s voice sounds its most haunting and distinct. “Once I wanted to be the greatest/Two fists of solid rock/With brains that could explain any feeling,” she sings over the gentle piano, steel guitars, and strings that fill out the album. The cover of The Greatest is marked by a gold boxing glove; from the first moments, this track punches the listener. It’s paralyzing.
8. “Metal Heart” from Moon Pix (1998)
In the spring of 1997, Chan Marshall moved in with her then-boyfriend, Bill Callahan (aka Smog) and together they rented a white, two-story house in Prosperity, South Carolina, off of Highway 51. The town is remote, only inhabited by about 1,000 people. Chan was 25, Bill was 30. They wanted to settle down. They were happy, for a while. When Bill went on tour in 1997 and Chan was left alone, she freaked out. “I was in South Carolina by myself for an entire month,” she’s said in interviews, according to Elizabeth Goodman’s 2009 biography, Cat Power: A Good Woman (which Marshall did not approve). “There’s no sounds or lights, just crickets and darkness. It’s an old house and if you’re in a bad state of mind, you sometimes see things that aren’t there and you go crazy.” One night, she was bugging out, going crazy, writing songs out of desperation. “I got woken up by someone in the field behind my house in South Carolina. The earth started shaking and dark spirits were smashing up against every window of my house. I woke up and had my kitten next to me … I started praying to God to help me. A voice was telling me my past would be forgotten if I would just meet him — whoever he was — in the field. And I woke up screaming, ‘No!’ I won’t meet you.’ And I knew who it was: the sneaky old serpent. My nightmare was surrounding my house like a tornado. So I just ran and got my guitar because I was trying to distract myself. I had to turn on the lights and sing to God. I got a tape recorder and recorded the next 60 minutes. And I played these long changes, into six different songs. That’s where I got the record.” That night, she wrote six of the 11 songs that would appear on Moon Pix. “Metal Heart” was one of them.
7. “Headlights” from her debut 7″ single (1993)
When Marshall moved from Atlanta to New York City in the early ’90s, she had little experience performing music publicly, but would sometimes play with her friends from home who moved up north with her. In 1993, she was convinced to record her first song as Cat Power — in a small studio in SoHo, with her friend Craig Flanagin of the band God Is My Co-Pilot as a producer. He also released it on his label, The Making Of The Americans. “Headlights” is the disturbing but powerful result: a first-person narrative from the perspective of a girl who is in the last minutes of her life, dying on the road after a car accident. Later, she would record another version with guitarist Tim Foljahn and drummer Steve Shelley, for her debut album Dear Sir (1995). In ’93, the 7″ was pressed on a limited vinyl run of 500.
6. “He War” from You Are Free (2003)
“He War” was the second single from You Are Free, on which Dave Grohl drums. Marshall hates the version that ended up on the record. “Horrible song,” she told Pitchfork in 2006. “It’s supposed to sound like the original recordings — more Stones-y.” Marshall has always been a perfectionist, though. The version of the song on You Are Free is in fact one of her most brilliants tunes, demonstrating her ability to write songs that seem at once understated and anthemic.
5. “American Flag” from Moon Pix (1998)
While recording Moon Pix, Marshall spent an entire day doing “American Flag” at a studio in Australia, with members of Dirty Three. Marshall pulled out a copy of the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill, and played “Paul Revere” for them, eventually sampling the drums from that song, looping, reversing, and slowing them down to create the backbone of this song. The spacious, haunting three-and-a-half-minute track dramatically opens up Moon Pix, easily her best album.
4. “Rockets” from Dear Sir (1995)
“Where do the dreams of babies go/’cause you know they’re all so good,” sings Marshall on “Rockets,” in this sort of minimal shout that is so distinctly Cat Power. In the ’90s, Marshall was known to create this sound by standing several feet away from the microphone when she performed, a quality to her performance that intrigued Thurston Moore when he first saw her live. “Rockets” was so beloved in the ’90s that it appeared on two of her records, both Dear Sir and the follow up, Myra Lee. Both albums included the same version — in fact, they sounded very similar, as they were recorded at once, all in one day in December 1994 in a basement on Mott Street in Lower Manhattan.
3. “Cross Bones Style” from Moon Pix (1998)
Marshall recorded all of Moon Pix backed by members of Dirty Three, but their careful instrumentation resonates most on “Cross Bones Style” — most notably Jim White’s excellent drumming. “Cross” is a clear highlight of the album — another song penned after that hallucinatory nightmare while alone in South Carolina. At this point in Marshall’s career, she was comfortable in the studio, using multi-tracked vocals with a defiant sense of control.
2. “Colors And The Kids” from Moon Pix (1998)
I can’t remember every detail of my freshman year of college, but I can remember listening to “Colors And The Kids” nearly every day. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has this sort of history with the song — it’s an introspective thing that gets under your skin and never really leaves. “Colors” is also perhaps the most beautiful two-chord song ever written. The six-and-a-half-minute track is reminiscent of the type of confessional that marked Marshall’s earlier years as a songwriter. “It must be the colors and the kids that keep me alive/because the music is boring me to death,” she sings repeatedly throughout the track. It’s an autobiographical reflection on past relationships, and the difficulties of feeling alienated on the road and in the city. “It’s so hard to go in the city,” she sings. “Because you want to say hey I love you to everybody.”
1. “Nude As The News” from What Would The Community Think (1996)
At 24 years old, Chan Marshall headed into a professional recording studio for the first time — Easley Studios in Memphis — to record her third album, What Would the Community Think. The result was a dark, sad, distinctly ’90s-sounding indie rock record, fitting for Cat Power’s first album with Matador — who, after four years of observing and contemplating, finally signed Marshall. Signing with Matador caused a certain amount of stress on Marshall’s relationship with Steve Shelley (who released her previous album and was basically her manager) but he recorded this album, nonetheless. It was eventually released on September 10, 1996. The best song on the album is “Nude as the News.” It instantly became a hit.
In August 2007, Greil Marcus talked to Marshall for Interview magazine, asking specifically about this song: “There is something wonderfully psychotic about that song,” said Marcus.
“I’ve never told anybody what that song’s about,” Marshall responded. “I wrote it when I was young. When I was making it up in my mind, I was feeling remorseful, I’d had an abortion when I was 20. I felt guilt and the same about that — which I still feel, but I’ve forgiven myself. I’d just seen Patti Smith perform for the first time — knowing she had two children, her being a figure of feminine strength for me, connecting with her strength, wanting to have it or work up to it and to fulfill my need for that strength, which I didn’t have when I wrote that song. So it meant that I carry the soul of that child in me forever. I’m not real educated. There’s a lot of societal anger: no education about when you get pregnant. There’s self-hatred. I’m not the enemy; society didn’t force me to have the abortion. But it’s years of stories meshed into one triumphant one: I can carry the soul with me, hopefully, in my mind or my heart. Carry the soul with me. I’ve never told anybody this. So there it is, for the world to see.”