September 27, 2018 | Arts and Culture
we are marshall?
reckoning with cat power’s wanderer tour
“It’s damned if you don’t and it’s damned if you do,” opines Chan Marshall, frontwoman of indie group Cat Power, over an achingly beautiful electric guitar line and the faint buzz of snare on her classic 1998 album, Moon Pix.
Propped in my bed scrolling through concert websites and looking at tickets for Marshall’s upcoming Wanderer tour, I can’t help but feel similarly. For the better part of the last several years, if somebody had asked me to go to a Cat Power concert with them, I would have agreed without a second’s hesitation. Now, with Marshall set to make an appearance at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston on October 5, I’m in a position of uncertainty. To go or not to go?
Chan Marshall, by my reckoning, is one of the great artists of her generation. Her music, produced since 1995 under the pseudonym Cat Power, consistently tugs at the heartstrings in a way that’s neither exploitative nor trite; ensconced in hazy, crepuscular melancholy, Marshall’s tunes resonate bone-deep with lyrics which communicate a hauntingly universal sadness despite their enigmatic simplicity. “Hate” (which was recently featured in the award-winning Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale) nestles in me at my lowest lows. “Good Woman” strikingly captures the stages of a toxic, decaying relationship. “Metal Heart,” the track quoted above, has seen me through many a desolate evening, and Moon Pix sounds like the magnolia bushes near my father’s old house and the streaks of mauve in the summer sky. Marshall’s collective works are, to me, whole and complete, rife with self-loathing malaise and proud assertions of female empowerment (sort of an acoustic Sleater-Kinney, at times, especially on blistering tracks like “He War”) in the same turn.
The problem, though, is that while Cat Power’s recorded music often strikes me as near-perfect, her recent concerts have been far from that mark. This isn’t to say that Marshall can’t still sing and play the way she used to; by all accounts her dusky laments sound as beautiful as they always have—when she can get them out, that is. My web-surfing has unearthed reviews of concerts dating from early 2016 all the way into this year that describe a hollow version of Marshall, often arriving late to her shows or not arriving at all, tinkering pedantically with her sound equipment to produce minute tonal differences imperceptible to everyone in the building except her, and cutting off songs or entire appearances prematurely to apologize for being such a terrible performer before “shuffling off stage” without further explanation. When Marshall is in good form, her concerts are hailed as breathtaking, but more recently they’ve been described as “idiosyncratic and often uncomfortable,” with reviewers noting that “it hurts when she skips lines…and trails off forlornly” and that her shows create a “claustrophobic mood.”
I would never presume to complain about or cast judgment on Marshall’s recent difficulties on stage. We all go through lengthy periods of self-doubt and struggle, and Marshall is as entitled to hers as anybody else. Her struggles with substance abuse and depression, in addition to a rare stress-induced medical condition called angioedema, have affected her for most of her life, and I have nothing but sympathy for her situation. But these reports definitely complicate the decision of whether to go and see her. Do I miss a golden opportunity to witness a woman whose work I revere, or do I go to Boston this October knowing that an experience I’ve anticipated for so long might ultimately turn out to be bathetic and disheartening?
One of the most resonant things about Marshall’s work for me, as a student artist, is that the confessional simplicity of her compositions makes a musical future seem achievable. She, among others (including the astounding Julien Baker), has been an incredibly important figure in my fledgling musical career, an act that inspires hope in me despite its misanthropy. As a self-taught performer without much classical training, I’ve found her ability to musically capture many modes of the human condition and her emphasis on mood and tone as opposed to technical prowess enormously influential upon my songwriting. That Marshall holds this special place in my heart raises another question which vexes me even more than the first: Does knowing that a woman of such vision and talent experiences the same self-doubt that I do make the world feel more conquerable? Or would seeing a paragon of my artistic inspiration break down emotionally on stage break me too?
Though they remain largely unresolved, these questions have led to a good deal of self-reflection about what it means to be an artist and, in a larger sense, a human being. Here is a woman, one I idolize as a goddess, who has publicly expressed that her entire collection of work is worthless. What this incongruity represents to me remains nebulous and vague, but what I think I can say confidently is that if Chan Marshall questions herself and her work after all she’s done and all she’s been through, it’s okay for all of us to do that, too. Perhaps there’s something positive to be taken from an unattended concert after all.
And Chan, whether I end up at your show or not—you are so much better than you think you are.