Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Cat Power: The Greatest (2006)



Surprised that when I fell in love with this album, in the year after its release, I hadn't taken a sip of alcohol yet -- it seems ideal for a lonely evening (had lots of those then) with a glass of wine or something. Hearing it now end to end several times as a soundtrack to the finale of a chaotic and suddenly quiet year, what strikes me is that it remains just a total, tightly compressed stunner of an album, and certainly Chan Marshall's finest hour as a composer. These songs are focused and subtle, but also brilliantly varied, helped along by a crack team of Memphis session musicians who bring alive the soul and country that sit as undercurrent in her songs -- as on none of her other records, they are permitted to truly breathe and come into their own.

The slight melancholy gracing all twelve cuts also makes it a perfect album for a night like tonight, seemingly the darkest night of them all, when a stillness overtakes everything except the tiny space lit by its gentle loveliness. Up until the sudden explosion of rock-ish roll on "Love && Communication," there's no real break into the normal indie rock stratosphere at all. Instead, we open with sweet lilting melodrama on the title cut; there may be no covers here, but "The Greatest" couldn't exist without "Moon River," and Marshall immediately introduces the sigh-heavy mood that will cover everything for the next forty-one minutes: "Once I wanted to be the greatest."

Like all of Cat Power's best work, The Greatest aches with loss, but its gracefulness belongs to the league of modern-day emotional navel gazers but in a class with Dylan circa Nashville Skyline, with Otis Redding at his most despairing, with Ray Davies ("Willesden Green" is all but directly reprised on "After It All"), maybe most of all with Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, the way their sadness was always met with some sort of grudging willingness to acknowledge its depths of nothingness with good humor and move forward. More than once, the simultaneous air of yearning (see "Where Is My Love") is undercut by a real spirit of driving beauty and sweetness. "Lived in Bars" kind of embodies all of the drama: opening as desolate plod, it picks up, wizened and reflective, like aging rapidly in song.

As consistent and intoxicating as its mood may be, The Greatest stands as a stellar achievement mostly because it's simply a superlative collection of songs that feels far shorter than it is and never oversteps itself. Its longest cut, the jazz-infected "Willie," seems as justified sinking into its six-minute groove as its shortest, the quintessential Cat Power country song "Islands," feels fully realized at 1:44. The piano-driven, simple and delicate "Living Proof" fits its melody as uncannily as the florid arrangement of Memphis horns and chilled-down Stax befits the sweet lullaby "Could We," with its wondrously simple "could we / take a walk" hook drifting its romance on up into an unrealized but tantalizingly implied full blossom.

Cat Power's next proper album of original songs, Sun, would bring forth what might be her best song ever, "Manhattan" -- but revisiting The Greatest, I'm reminded that it may have some serious composition in the form of the truly stunning "The Moon," which more than any of her other tracks makes a long dark night a romantic and tangible thing -- and manages so impressively to sound both minimal and truly expansive. When Marshall sings that the moon is "not only beautiful, it is so far away," she could be referring to the song itself, a light-touch enigma that seems almost too distant and wispy to capture but so unmistakable, present, almost eerily gorgeous. And better yet, it achieves this through what at a glance seem classic-rockist techniques of layered George Harrison-circa-Abbey Road guitar, intense vocals overdubbed atop one another, and just the directness and intensity, as ever, of Marshall's voice. She may or may not have sounded better at some other point, but I doubt she's ever been so focused, across the breadth of this song and its complete album -- a moment captured so lovingly you want to hold on and cling to every treasured split-second of it.

Sun (2012)

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