When Chan Marshall sings, it sounds like a bloodletting–emotional, literal, whichever. On albums like 1996’s What Would the Community Think, Marshall seemed to open a new vein with every note. Her follow-up, Moon Pix, threw a country-rock gauze over her brooding, while 2000’s medium-brilliant The Covers Record found Marshall twisting a few favorite tunes to fit her patented monochrome delivery. But no matter how she dresses her flat-line folk songs, her head’s never been a fun place to visit.
On her fifth LP, Marshall’s still paying rent on her own private hell. But the striking You Are Free finds her surrounded by famous friends. Newly rediscovered utility outfielder Dave Grohl plays his gentlest drums ever, Eddie Vedder contributes atmospheric mumbling, and David “Beck’s dad” Campbell arranges some strings. But these are hardly posse cuts; the guest cast’s presence never infringes on the album’s overcast beauty.
Marshall opens with an undeniable trifecta. On “I Don’t Blame You,”her inner piano balladeer sheds tears for an anonymous, conflicted rocker who may be her own damned self (“You were swinging your guitar around / Cuz they wanted to hear that sound / But you didn’t wanna play”). “Free” pits stiff robot folk against such ideals for living as: “Don’t be in love with the autograph.” And on the shattering “Good Woman,” over tear-jerking guitar, Marshall realizes she has to give up a “good man” to salvage her own virtue. It’s a particularly lucid moment on a record full of them: From the rattling drive of “Shaking Paper” to a barely-there cover of old folkie Michael Hurley’s “Werewolf,” Marshall has never sounded this in control of her demons. She still lets it bleed. But this time, her survival seems like a given rather than a gamble.