April 22, 2004

The Repeat Button: Cat Power

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There’s a great wealth of ghost stories in American music. Growing out of the same Scotch-English culture that gave us murder ballads, from the traditional “Early One Morning” to Warren Zevon’s “My Ride’s Here,” ghost songs are usually narrative set-ups for the gruesome reveal — in the last verse, we find out the singer died years ago. Cat Power’s “Devil’s Daughter” takes an infinitely more terrifying premise: not ghosts, but the living dead. And no, there are no zombies here, just a woman so tormented by life that she sees death as a refuge and is prepared to call herself a demon just so she can finally have a name.

There’s just the damaged husk of Chan Marshall’s voice and the occasional strumming of a guitar tuned low enough to half-imitate one of Johnny Cash’s marching bass lines. The result is the aural equivalent of negative space, and every time one of the two chords dies out without a new one being struck there’s the absurd surety that this time there won’t be any resumption of the song but only silence. Marshall sounds like it hurts to even think these words, let alone sing them.

Every syllable should be a sob, and the worst part is the way that this confessional, suicide note of a song is delivered in a calm, relieved way. “I must be one of the devil’s daughters,” she says, as though happy to finally understand the reason for her own anguish. The singer is in flight from herself, pained by her own skin and the weight of the world’s gaze: “sometimes it’s like being in chains/ sometimes I hang my head in shame/ when people see me they scandalize my name.” The words are increasingly murmured as the “troubled water” closes over her head like a balm. The only time there’s a change from the awful listlessness is when she says “I’m going down to the devil’s water/ I’m gonna drown in that troubled water” like it’s the one promise she can make herself. But there’s no peace, and the last line comes keening from beyond the grave, an accusation of life itself — “I must be” — that dies away unanswered.

Scary, scary stuff.

Archived article by Erica Stein