In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, superhumanly endowed Dirk Diggler said, “Everyone has one special thing.” Okay, so I’m about to equate Dirk Diggler to Cat Power. But hold tight. The incongruously isolated and sensual tones Chan Marshall breathes out are exclusively hers, with which she evokes a personal invitation into her inner life. Then there’s her stream-of-conscious lyrics, abstract yet dead on, that teeter between third-person narratives and her own personal hell. That voice complements her lyrical sensibilities and sorrow in a rare way. It’s her gift. And it’s pretty damn clear why Antony Hegarty cites her as a favorite.
But don’t we like our Cat Power to ourselves, one on one? Brace yourself. Recorded in Memphis with a slew of notables – the foremost being Mabon and Leroy Hodges, landmark purveyors of the Memphis soul sound of the ’60s and ’70s – The Greatest stands as the furthest departure from her opus. Yup, Chan’s got company here. But unlike when she dragged Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder into her hole on 2003’s meditative You Are Free, here she’s almost got competition. The sheer number of players often threatens to push that haunted, weary voice deep into the ground. But ultimately the sparseness that has become her signature transmutes into a full and frequently blithe sound – one that leads her voice into further potency.
Opening with the title track, a gorgeous piano and swelling string arrangement that swirls around her vocals, Marshall lays a strong foundation for her new Southern-rock experiment. As the album progresses, this begins to get off-putting. Dedicated fans have signed up for the expected aching sadness, not rollicking Dixie and swagger. And, yes, the honky-tonk horns on “Could We” butt in on her vocals, but this leads to her often quiet mumblings giving way to an uncommon belting of her words. Her vocal confidence continues throughout The Greatest‘s many unexpected moments. Looking back on 1996’s fragile What Would the Community Think?, did we ever think we’d hear a “she-bop, she-bop” refrain on a Cat Power song?
Lucky for those of us who fear change, Marshall provides some wonderfully tranquil moments and a smattering of her solitary songwriting. “Where Is My Love” and particularly the sparse ballad “The Moon” come off like cast-offs from her desolate fan-favorite The Covers Record (2000). The former with piano and strings and the latter with guitar and vocal effects, these two arrive at the album’s crucial half-way point – as if she’s snuck into the studio while everyone’s out to lunch. But they’re all back from the barbecue soon enough. Much of the rest of The Greatest rides out with bluesy country guitar and a confident strut.
Bombastic closer “Love and Communication” caps the record with keyboards, feedback, cutting strings and, once again, this new assertive Marshall. The Greatest may open a new door for her vocal gift and distinctive narrative voice. Or perhaps it’s merely a one-off derailment on her journey of private songwriting. Many of these new forms shift her into the role of a band leader – a role that, maybe, could solidify her as the “voice of a generation” that overzealous press releases have claimed her to be. I can’t think of anything much I’d rather see.
Cat Power on Matador’s Web site