Covers are integral to the way music evolves. As different musicians interpret songs, they leave an imprint in the form of changed lyrics or a slightly different melody. Such updates can shift the essence of a song—or even, in drastic covers, transform it—and at other times tease out previously unheard nuances.
In a career distinguished by dozens of transformative covers, Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, has done all of the above—and then some. She excels at digging into the emotional quicksand of each song to draw out surprising themes and angles. Her deceptively low-key 2000 take on The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is a potent mix of restlessness and longing, while a 2008 cover of James Brown & The Famous Flames’ “Lost Someone” resembles a bittersweet torch song, equal parts sorrow and desperation.
Most recently, her 2018 version of Rihanna’s “Stay” strips the already-yearning song down to spare piano and dusky, heartbroken vocals. While the original sounds like an entreaty to a lover, begging them to come back, Marshall’s take is solitary catharsis, a performance meant only for her own private grief.
The goal of her stellar new covers album, Covers, seems to be to document shared history while fostering connection. “I play covers all the time,” Marshall writes in her bio included with Covers. “[A]nd it’s important for me to record them because it’s what me and my listeners both get.”
To that end, Covers—her third such collection, after 2000’s The Covers Record and 2008’s Jukebox—once again balances introspection with outward displays of communal emotion. Her slower, somber version of The Replacements’ “Here Comes A Regular” in particular feels like a eulogy mourning a previous life, highlighted by the glancing line, “I used to live at home, now I stay at the house.” Marshall’s album-opening take on Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion,” by contrast, changes the lyrics slightly to describe a spontaneous moment of meaningful conversation. The song’s taxi driver character becomes a confidant (“He said, ‘Praise the Lord—hallelujah. Little girl, you need freedom”) to reclaim the original tune’s oppression and sorrow.
As those two songs imply, the album boasts Marshall’s usual selection of interesting and unexpected covers. This time around, she’s curated an intriguing and moody mix of modern pop, vintage country, and classic rock, highlighted by recognizable songs (Bob Seger’s “Against The Wind,” the Jackson Browne-written “These Days,” which she’s covered live in the past) and more obscure choices (“Pa Pa Power” by Dead Man’s Bones, the band featuring actor Ryan Gosling; Iggy Popp’s 1979 track “The Endless Sea”). Marshall also produced the Covers recording sessions, helming a band that features her long-time bassist, Erik Paparazzi, and others.
In addition to providing a richer backdrop for her voice, the album has a broader instrumental palette than her previous album, 2018’s minimalist Wanderer. “Unhate”—a new take on her own “Hate,” from 2006’s The Greatest—is lusher than the original, with buoyant keyboard, dry-rattle drums, and turbulent guitar. “I Had A Dream Joe” is immediately recognizable as a Nick Cave cover—it’s all churning, ominous gothic-blues—while Lana Del Rey’s “White Mustang” is woozy, sun-scorched twang. Yet Covers also makes room for Marshall’s subtler transformations: Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” oozes restrained jazz-lounge cool, while The Pogues’ “A Pair Of Brown Eyes” is a funereal hymn.
If there’s one through-line on both this album and Marshall’s previous covers, it’s reverence. “When I do covers, I feel such a responsibility to the artists I love—some I’ve never met, some I have,” Marshall says. That thoughtfulness helps ensure even familiar songs sound fresh. The Covers studio version of “These Days” hews closer to Nico’s haunted and quiet rendition, albeit with slightly more optimism built in.
In contrast, Seger’s “Against The Wind” is appropriately stormier on Covers. The original song is an easygoing, straightforward heartland anthem about trying to find your place after realizing you no longer fit in where you are. Here, Marshall taps into the turbulent side of such a change, as well as the oppressive forces described in the song’s lyrics. In her hands, “Against The Wind” is a minor-key cautionary tale with roiling piano, propulsive drums, and guitars that are on high alert. When she sings about searching for shelter “against the wind,” her pleas are anguished and aching, and solace seems far away indeed. However, Covers as a whole is just the opposite: a comforting acknowledgment of life’s complexities that feels like a salve for uncertainty.