You Are Free arrives nearly five years from her last album of original material, and everything, yet nothing, has changed about Chan Marshall's music. The album's title is as much a statement as it is a challenge, a command to free one's self from the hurt and pain of the past, or to at least find a way of making peace with it. Marshall seems to do both on You Are Free, a collection of songs about finding freedom and peace wherever she can. Initially, the album seems more diffuse than Moon Pix, as it spans tense rockers, blues, folk, and singer/songwritery piano ballads, but it gradually reveals itself as Marshall's most mature and thematically focused work yet. You Are Free opens with a stunning trio of songs that encompass most of the moods and sounds she explores later in the album. On "I Don't Blame You," the first of You Are Free's many spare, piano-driven moments, Marshall paints a portrait of a tormented musician, her voice so full of sympathy that she may well be singing a reconciliation to a previous incarnation of herself. The brisk, buzzing intensity of "Free," however, offers liberation in the form of rock & roll's immediate, poetic nonsense: "Don't be in love with the autograph/Just be in love when you love that song all night long." You Are Free's first two songs address musicians and making music directly; Marshall is a famously willful, volatile artist, and the increasing gaps between her albums (not to mention her unpredictable live performances) suggest that being a musician isn't the easiest thing for her to do, even if it's a necessary one. She addresses the struggle to do the right, but difficult, thing on "Good Woman," a near-spiritual breakup song where, backed by a children's choir and fiddles, Marshall explains that she needs to be a good woman with -- or more likely, without -- her bad man. Aside from being a lovely song, it's also a departure; earlier in her career the song might have just focused on the conflict instead of Marshall's gently strong resolution to it. This gentle but resolute strength runs through most of You Are Free's best moments, such as "He War" and especially "Names," a terrifyingly matter-of-fact recollection of child abuse and lost friends that says more in its resigned sorrow than a histrionic tirade would. As the album progresses, it moves toward the spare, affecting ballads that give her later work a strange timelessness; listening to You Are Free gives the impression of stripping away layers to get to the essence of Marshall's music. In some ways, the quiet last half of this album is more demanding than the angsty noise of Dear Sir or Myra Lee, but hearing her find continually creative interpretations of minor keys, plaintive pianos, and folky guitars is well worth the attention it takes, whether it's the dead-of-night eroticism of her cover of Michael Hurley's "Werewolf," the pretty yet eerie longing of "Fool," or the prairie romance of "Half of You." Every Cat Power album takes at least a few listens to fully reveal itself; You Are Free may take awhile longer than expected to unfold, but once it does, its excellence is undeniable.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares