Beth Orton, Keren Ann, Beth Gibbons, Aimee Mann, A Girl Called Eddy, Rachel Yamagata — sometimes it seems as if an entire satellite-radio channel could be devoted to women with teardrop voices and sad, sad songs. They’re the perpetual widows of pop, making pain compatible with boutique emporiums everywhere.
Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, brought this melancholy-baby sensibility to indie rock a decade ago, and her seventh album, The Greatest, has moments that recall the spartan moping of her first records. Anyone familiar with her oeuvre will hear something familiar in the new album’s forlorn piano rumination (”Where Is My Love”) and its to-the-bone, voice-and-electric-guitar ballad (”The Moon,” where she wonders if her man will be there for her even when she’s dead and buried). Just like old times, each is sung as if she were alone, on a rainy day, in a room with drawn curtains. In ”Islands,” she vows to ”sleep eternally” if her man doesn’t return, and the title song is hardly the I-am-the-champion statement it implies, but rather a rumination on a fall from grace and dashed expectations. ”Once I wanted to be the greatest,” goes its opening line, and it hardly gets any cheerier than that.
Yet Marshall’s also had the longest coming-out in the history of pop. With each record (save 2000’s comatose collection of remakes, The Covers Record), she’s expanded her emotional and musical vocabulary a bit more, culminating in the small but important gains heard on The Greatest. In a particularly unlikely scenario, Marshall recorded the album in Memphis with songwriters and musicians who’ve worked with the likes of Al Green. No one will ever mistake The Greatest for a down-home soul record, even with the Southern-gothic imagery that crops up in many of its songs, yet the players do their best to nudge Marshall toward some degree of release.
A woozy fiddle weaves in and out of ”Empty Shell,” in which she tries not to be spiteful toward the new woman in her ex’s life; a ghostly honky-tonk piano lightens the load on the country noir ”After It All,” which hints at a physically abusive relationship. In her typically low-profile manner, Marshall even tries to meet everyone halfway. The unexpected burst of jubilant horns in the plucky ”Could We” is a perfect match for a song in which she for once sounds like an almost giddy teenager in the throes of a first all-consuming love.
At times, one misses the stark solipsism and bristling guitar pluckings of previous records like 1996’s What Would the Community Think, which, coincidentally, was also recorded in Memphis. On The Greatest, Marshall wanders into lulling Orton/Portishead turf so often that it’s easy to imagine some of these songs oozing out of the PA system at your local Banana Republic. Yet in Marshall’s case, this transformation isn’t so depressing. She’s inching her way toward expressiveness — never a bad thing, in music or life.