When Chan Marshall covers a song, she inhabits it. Sometimes, she even transforms it into an unrecognizable echo of its past self. In her now three complete albums of covers as Cat Power, Marshall has quietly but notably become one of the 21st century’s great interpreters, and also one of its choosiest: she is just as likely to pick a #1 hit from two years ago as she is a deep cut from a 90s obscurity.
On her first, seminal collection — titled The Covers Record — she took songs as disparate as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (famously excising its most famous sections in favor of something much more dour and spare) and Smog’s “Red Apples”. On 2008’s Jukebox, she tackled some of the smoky tunes of Billie Holiday and George Jackson alongside stalwart classics from Liza Minelli and Joni Mitchell. And now, on her third covers album (which is titled, in an almost humorously matter-of-fact way, Covers) she does it again, this time with a new vigor and her standby band in tow. Recorded almost on a whim in the studio, Covers provides a nice end to a troubadour triptych.
Kicking things off with a cover of a song as recent and as beloved as Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion” is a daring move, but it pays off: not only does it ground the album in a certain immediacy from the beginning, but it also showcases what Marshall does best when covering other people’s work. By tinkering with a few lines here and there, altering pieces of the melody, and elongating the song by about 90 seconds, Marshall makes it her own. With its slower swagger and hint of autotune beneath the surface, it wouldn’t feel out of place on something like The Greatest or even Sun, her electronics-studded 2012 album. Her covers don’t necessarily replace or surpass the originals, but that’s not really what Marshall seems to be going for. Instead, she often shoots the song through her own specific lens, a convex mirror of its original form — recognizable, but different.
Not all the covers she does are so altered, of course. Sometimes she’s content to play it pretty close. Her version of Lana del Rey’s “White Mustang” replaces the piano with an electric one, and gives the song a bit more of a robotic edge, adding more urgency to the mix. “Against the Wind”, a Bob Seger cut, remains pretty faithful to the original, even while it gives it just a touch of the usual Cat Power moodiness. Her version of Jackson Browne’s “These Days”, one of the most covered songs on this set, is stripped back to just some sparkling guitar and hazy harmonies. In this way, it’s actually a bit more reminiscent of the famed Nico cover or St. Vincent’s rendition than Browne’s, perfectly capturing the melancholy of the tune.
Her choices, as ever, are quite eclectic. Her take on the country staple “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” by Kitty Wells is stitched together by a simple tap-and-snap percussion and lap steel, removing almost any of its original context. It sounds more like a soulful Appalachian folk song. She slows down Nick Cave’s “I Had a Dream Joe”, replacing its fiery fervor with a more sinister, sustained mood, slowly cresting. Her “Here Comes a Regular” (originally by The Replacements) swaps jangly guitars for piano, making it sound like a Cat Power original. And then she ends with a lovely and smoky rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You”. Mostly known as a Billie Holiday song, it’s a perfect way to end things, and is clearly right up Marshall’s alley, recalling past cover achievements like “Sea of Love” in its utterly moving simplicity.
Another thing Marshall has become known for is covering her own songs. It’s a tricky endeavor to cover your own songs, sidling up right alongside the edge of redundancy. There’s a whiff of possibility that covering yourself is either selfish or self-aggrandizing, as if the artist is suggesting their own work is canonical enough to stand firmly alongside the work of these other artists. But Marshall is someone who really lives inside her work, inside her every sound; she grows with the songs, and when one feels like rebirthing itself, she lets it out. She did it with a much jazzier take on “Metal Heart” on Jukebox. She does it live all the time, crafting new versions of old songs, sometimes rearranging them entirely. and she does it again here for The Greatest’s “Hate”, here renamed “Unhate”. It’s given a slightly more optimistic bent in that she changes a key lyric (“I hate myself and I want to die”) to the past tense (“I hated myself and I wanted to die”), thereby suggesting a leaving behind of a past strife and accepting a certain level of hope and happiness. It’s an effective switch thematically, even if the song itself, with its squiggly, acidic aesthetic, pales in comparison to its stark and minimal original.
Cat Power as a whole project has been a fascinating thing to watch. From the absolutely desolate and bare bones early albums like Myra Lee, to the indie folk breakthrough of You Are Free, and then to the soul, jazz, and hip hop influences she took on basically ever since The Greatest brought her to a wider audience. Her live shows have been known for everything from haphazard and emotionally draining, to buoyant and sultry. She is an artist who has worn her bruised heart on her sleeve, even when she might’ve preferred it to go back inside.
But through it all, even in her more awkward or stumbling moments, Marshall has retained a sense of intimacy, wonder, and generosity that many other artists could only dream of. Her one-of-a-kind voice and her deeply intuitive and personal style make her a unique vessel for practically anyone’s work, including her own. She’s at times unpredictable and yet profoundly, almost uncomfortably visible. And though the nature of Covers makes it slightly scattershot, and nothing quite hits the heights of some of her past covers, it is decidedly more engaging and diverse than her last album, the lowkey-to-the-point-of-disappearing Wanderer. The fact that we can hear a whole world in her voice even when it’s someone else’s song is further proof that she is a true artist, a spirit worth following through the wind.