Chan Marshall, known to the rock and roll world as Cat Power, is a painfully shy woman with a lot to say. You Are Free, her new album and first since 2001's bleak The Covers Record, is the least self-assured-sounding self-assured record in ages. "Don't be in love with the autograph/Just be in love when you scream that song/All night long," Marshall sings on "Free." The song should be a jangly free-for-all, classic pop with the kind of swinging energy that defined early Elvis Costello and Bleach-era Nirvana.
It's not. That's what makes it so tense. The folkie singer keeps her arrangement skeletal, with acoustic strums and restrained drums. She sings as if glee is self-conscious protest -- no primal screams or exultation, just a flat whimper. My interpretation: The artist wants to be happy, but doesn't really know how, like she's hosting a go-go party for her imaginary friends. She channels her hopes and fears wonderfully but sounds terrified of the exposure.
Her musical agoraphobia is, not surprisingly, strongest on her most painful confessionals. "Good Woman" is gorgeous self-flagellating balladry. "I want to be a good woman/And I want you to be a good man/This is why I'm leaving," she sings; later, she breaks hearts with "And this is why I'm lying/When I say I don't love you no more." Now that's some devastating Dear John material, made palpable by David Campbell's string arrangement and Eddie Vedder's moaning background vocals.
Ultimately it takes Dave Grohl to help propel her out of her shell -- or to at least come close. Grohl and Foo Fighters bandmate Taylor Hawkins slap a rockin' double-drum arrangement on "He War," so that when Cat Power sings "I'm not that hot chick/And if you want me to run with it/We're onto your same old trick" in vocals that sound filtered through a phonograph, it actually takes on the intended urgency.
You Are Free is definitive work from an artist who -- outwardly anyway -- doesn't want to be definitive about anything, which perhaps makes Marshall the rock and roll equivalent of the ugly duckling. Cat Power is truly a swan, but will she ever realize it?