Cat Power has always worn her heart on her sleeve, being a master of emotional, intricate songcraft and poetic candour. She’s managed to seduce listeners into her sweet, melancholy and healing embrace for more than 30 years, while also protecting her privacy. It’s an alluring combination, at once drawing us in while also maintaining her mystery and allowing listeners the freedom to attune her lyrics and mood to their personal calibration.
With Covers, Power (the stage name of Charlyn Marie “Chan” Marshall) completes her trilogy of covers albums, following Jukebox (2008) and The Covers Record (2000). Her 11th album, it coincides with her 50th birthday and treads back in time to songs that struck a chord in her youth, and others released in the past decade that remind her of loved ones lost.
Power’s fans will have their favourite record. Whether it’s Moon Pix (1998), recorded with members of Dirty Three, or Sun (2012). My entry point to her music was Moon Pix’s atmospheric, darkly melodic single Cross Bones Style, which fused psychedelic folk with a gothic hymnal chant. That same melancholic alchemy transforms the songs of Nick Cave, Iggy Pop and Billie Holiday into unmistakably Power-esque anthems on Covers.
Her delicate piano-ballad version of Frank Ocean’s Bad Religion is a spare gospel song. Her delivery is intimately confessional; stripped of heavy beats and production tricks, it’s as if Power is singing a smokey lullaby. It is organic, sparse and compelling; every lyric crystalline, highlighting Ocean’s skilful poetry as a storyteller.
Power has a knack for emphasising elements of the original songs through reinterpretation. To that end, Dead Man’s Bones’ Pa Pow is built from a warm ’70s-style folk guitar atop the steady march of drums. When she half wails “Pow-er!” it’s more wounded cry than fierce demand.
Her earthier vocals sound determined on White Mustang (where Lana Del Rey’s original featured her distinctive hyper-feminine dreaminess). Here Del Rey’s hazy downbeat trip-hop is transformed into a rockier, folksier beast with a freewheeling guitar melody that’s both rangy and sexy. It’s good, but not a patch on her Kitty Wells cover. A pioneering woman of country music, Wells’ 1952 classic It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels (also covered by Dolly Parton) is all slinky, deep-slung bass and finger-click percussion. Power’s wearied, knowing voice croons: “Too many times married men think they’re single, and that’s caused many a good girl to go wrong.” Delivered with a smidgen of bluegrass, grit and a grimace, it’s beautiful.
In a different way, so is Cave’s I Had a Dream, Joe, which becomes a prog-rock jam of thunderous drums, sinewy, snarling guitar and the desperate refrain, “I Had a Dream, Joe … I opened my eyes, and there you were.” She’s dialled back the gothic Sturm und Drang and magnified the eeriness of living between wakefulness and ghosts.