Defiance, defeat, despair, disillusionment. Regret. They all sound like this.
Those byproducts of intense reflection and longing, of necessary resignation, are what we hear when the lady with the 80-proof voice and dulled sandpaper caress sings an existential lullaby. Her voice suggests reassurance on the surface, but that’s just a load of typecasted bull — this stuff claws at your chest cavity, burns for the taste of your most closeted ache.
Here she is, Chan Marshall, AKA Cat Power, something of an indie queen in them indie parts of town, and she’s taking steps to put the indie thing behind her. She’s in Memphis, cutting a record at Ardent Studios (made famous by Stax Records and Big Star) and surrounding herself with in-the-pocket cats that played with Al Green during his untouchable Hi Records years. For many, the reaction is the same: It’s about time Ms. Marshall abandoned that indecisive indie racket and got down to bidness with some real musicians.
And at first, it works, man, it really works: The Greatest begins as an inheritance of influence, the kind that runs deep in R&B’s blood, snaring a waft of legacy from a Memphis riverbank. Because this town, Memphis, treats its ghosts as eternal lodgers — its past is an inextricable part of its present tense.
The humidity of geographical possession hangs all over the cautious, ghostly piano chords that open the album. The title track, whose narrator has resigned himself to not being able to boast the titular superlative, is an after-hours soul afterthought, deftly played with brushed drums ka-lacking and ka-lunking and strings that drape over it all with reluctant comfort. “Once I wanted to be the greatest,” Marshall ekes out in that blossoming whisper of hers. “No wind or waterfall could stop me.” We know how this is going to end and it’s only the first track. Sweet sweet acquiescence.
“The Greatest” has no chorus to speak of (in fact, virtually no song on the album save “Could We” has a chorus in the traditional sense), but it still manages to consume and compel with its big, forgiving sighs, exhaling where the choruses should be. It’s the voice or the arrangement that does the trick (both are overtired and pleasantly buzzed), or maybe it’s that unavoidable sense of mystery that Marshall’s latched onto in that town of spirits in which she works.
“Living Proof” brings in the horns, an organ, and a bouncier backbeat, as does the double-timed second half of “Lived in Bars”. It’s here that Marshall gets to feast on leftover scraps from a soul barbeque, bringing it loose and potentially funky while still retaining that Dusty Springfield air of permanent frustration. This style of music suits her well; it’s not so much a reinvention as it is a realization of a destiny.
So wait, what happened? Was the destiny misread or squandered or forsaken? All too soon, The Greatest dwindles into prototypical Cat Power mode, meandering and melody deficient, receding back into the undefined murkiness of Moon Pix and You Are Free as if it had subconsciously followed in the footsteps of the opening song’s narrator. “Where Is My Love” and “Hate” are uncomfortably sparse songs on piano and guitar, respectively, both abandoning the possibilities of the Memphis scenario altogether. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is a wicked concept on paper: Marshall’s got the voice and the vibe to make it work, but there’s a nagging sense that it wasn’t properly planned out. The real colors of this music exist in the muted trumpets and the tight rhythm section and Marshall’s brutally honest voice. The songs themselves were left out of the deal.
As a result, these seasoned R&B players sit on simplified structural loops like bored townies on barstools that they know all too well. Even worse, Marshall doubles many of the tracks’ lead vocals with a “phantom” harmony, if you will, a harmony vocal that echoes in the back of the mix, shouting to make itself heard. The effect is one of a work in progress instead of laidback confidence. Marshall herself sums it up on the closing “Love & Communication” (which could be her sad-sacked attempt to write her own response to Green’s “Love and Happiness”): “Can you tell there is something better / ‘Cause you know there always is.” The Greatest didn’t have to be the greatest, but it could have been a contender.