Cat Power: You Are Free (Matador Records)

But what’s notable about You Are Free is the surprising sense of playfulness she’s infused into many of the songs.

Three years after releasing her Covers Record—a spare, spooky guest house she dismantled and rebuilt herself, room by room, song by song—Cat Power’s Chan Marshall returns with You Are Free, her first (mostly) original album since 1998’s Moon Pix. Marshall’s songs are still built on kid-simple piano and guitar chords, and her aching, airy voice still slides beautifully between whisper and soar. But what’s notable about You Are Free is the surprising sense of playfulness she’s infused into many of the songs. Even some of the slowest numbers—like “Werewolf,” one of two covers—are delivered with a kind of mellow sass.

You Are Free is layered with vocals. In addition to harmonizing with herself—which she does here even more than on Moon Pix—she invites others to the mic, giving the songs an added punch or dimension. Near the closing of “Free,” an aggressive chorus chants several rounds of the title word until the song becomes a mini-anthem. On “Good Woman,” Marshall’s backed by the sing-song sound of young-girl voices and then by the low quiver of Eddie Vedder, who harmonizes from the shadows. Vedder surfaces again on the closer, “Evolution,” murmuring below Marshall from start to finish.

Not only more layered, You Are Free is more lyrically direct than Moon Pix, and its songs are more memorable as stories. There’s the musician in “I Don’t Blame You,” whom Marshall comforts with the nod that sometimes you just don’t feel like feeding the fans. There’s the woman in “Babydoll,” perhaps a model trapped in “black black black,” to whom Marshall whispers, “Don’t you want to be free?” And there are the five doomed children in “Names,” whose sad fates Marshall describes one after another over solemn piano.

On this beautifully packaged album—the photography is by Mark Borthwick, who recently made a documentary of Marshall—the songwriter plays liberator. As the title suggests, freedom is now, and it’s personal. Three of the fourteen songs speak directly to the concept, and in many others freedom lingers between the lines. Perhaps the most compelling, and the most playful, example comes near the end of “Half of You,” when Marshall sings: “An empty bag of chips will tell you what can be sold at market/and what can’t belongs to you.”

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