Croak and dagger: Chan Marshall could sigh her way through the side of a cough medicine box, each polysyllabic chemical name sounding sexier and sexier as she draws hard on a cigarette she doesn’t need for effect, and it’d be worth your free listening time.
She could lay back on a strange bed, sheets crumpled from the night before’s unsettled slumber, each toss and turn documented in a crease, and read aloud the hotel’s mini-bar menu – you’d willingly call the premium-rate number to listen in: Gravel-toned Chanteuse Gets Drunk On Miniatures, £1.50 a minute, all credit cards welcomed. In short, there’s few men in the world that could not be lulled into some foolish act of besotted adoration or other by the merest whisper from the mouth of the artist still known as Cat Power. Usually such a hold on an audience would suffice – a high mark out of ten, four stars at least, easy as you like – but for her latest long-player Marshall has lost the intimacy that made her last record so engaging, so breathtakingly naked and absorbingly addictive. She has gone MOR/AOR, delete as appropriate to the polar opposite of your particular tastes.
Much has already been made of her jaunt to Memphis, of her recruiting of veteran musicians to bring what she figured was vibrancy and richness to her already lyrically marvellous compositions; of how she hooked up with folk that booted and tooted along to a legend so grand as Al Green. Little, though, has been said of the product: The Greatest really isn’t, however mighty its peaks. It’s possible to draw an unexpected comparison to Ryan Adams, whose Jacksonville City Nights wandered its lonely heart to the southern badlands only to become a relatively dull coffee-table experience, all predictability and solidified purpose where before lay the slight suggestion of chaos, albeit in a typically countrified dressing. Adams was wise, though, and the 2005 releases that sandwiched his wandering from the mark were of a higher standard; Cat Power does not have such a luxury. This is it, the much-lusted-for follow-up to ‘You Are Free’; it deserves but a portion of said desire.
‘The Greatest’, the album’s title-track and lead single, is a magnificent opener, resplendent in the finest string arrangements this LP has to offer. Chan sings, sighs, yawns; a million indie-boy hearts pulse ‘til they burst and the warm flood is entirely luscious. ‘Where Is My Love’ follows in similar fashion, albeit belatedly at track seven, Marshall doing a fine Bill Callahan turn with talk of horses. Again, it’s glorious, each sumptuous, slowly struck note falling gracefully like a snowflake over a desert, nothing but the stars and the sand for company. Pure isolation – at her very best Marshall can do this to a person, make them feel absolutely alone in a room, whatever the crowd. Totally immersed in music, in song, in her.
A number of songs suggest brilliance before stumbling rather into the bland: ‘Lived In Bars’ begins with Marshall at the piano, where her talents are on a parallel with few. When it shifts direction, though, into jazzier territories, one can’t help feeling robbed. Yes, this collection of musicians is both highly talented and respected, but their overbearing presence on certain songs spoils the sentiments held within; they over-egg the pudding and spill the wine for good measure. The sparse ‘Hate’ is a penultimate downer before the completely contrasting ‘Love And Communication’ finishes proceedings with something of a bang – it’s certainly the most-rocking number here – but the imbalance between the grand and the not is alarming. It’s as if Marshall loosened her creative reigns a little too much, like she allowed her collaborators to freewheel when their inclinations should have been rather more restricted. That’s not to say that their talents are wasted – far from it, to some the jaunty songs here will be standouts – but in this setting they’re too much, too noticeably out of sorts with what's expected, what's demanded.
Croak and dagger: become seduced by the words and the music may just sucker punch you, leaving you cold to a record that’s assumed intention was to appear warm and inviting. Stab you it won’t, but should your heart pop, as so many have in Marshall’s presence before, you may wish you’d saved such sacrifice for a better record. She may be able to whisper and moan her merry way out of many a sticky situation, but with 'The Greatest' Marshall seems to have pa(i)nted herself into a creative corner from where there is no immediate rescue.
6Mike Diver's Score