In the performance film Speaking for Trees, Chan Marshall walks barefoot into a sun-spangled field, jacks in her electric guitar, and for the next two hours makes like she’s digging a hole in her brain’s backyard. Songs begin tentatively, then drift off mid-verse; lyrics are forgotten and fudged; numbers are inexplicably repeated; sometimes the volume drops so low the cicadas and the breeze threaten to drown her out. It’s classic Cat Power: fragile, unsettled, riveting.
Amid the recent fuss over indie rock’s New Weird Americana, it’s easy to forget that this odd Southern girl has been releasing dreamily primitive electric folk-blues records for more than ten years now — wobbly art brut affairs held together with hair and saliva, her voice mostly a murmuring drone that wafts from the speakers like sadnessscented room freshener. But something happened on 2003’s You Are Free. The songs actually felt less free, formally: more focused, arranged, and rhythmically grounded, showing a vocal confidence that — in an impressive act of dual consciousness — didn’t lose the delicate uncertainty at the core of what she does. In short, Cat Power had learned how to make a record, and she had made a masterpiece.
After only a few spins, The Greatest sounds like another one. If Free seemed partly about the values of Marshall’s indie world — in a conceptual coup, it featured Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl, central figures in alt rock’s early-’90s Passion play — her latest is about deeper roots: the Southern soul sounds of her childhood. In another coup, she’s drafted guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges and bassist Leroy “Flick” Hodges (the brothers who defined the well-lubed grind of Al Green’s and Ann Peebles’ recordings for Hi in the early ’70s), along with other players versed in the ush, string-gilded Memphis sound. And the album was recorded in Memphis’ Ardent Studios, which produced that indie landmark of white Southern emotional instability, Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers.
Still, the idea sounds dubious: Little Miss Queen of Darkness donning a party dress and shimmying to old 45s. But just as Vedder and Grohl lowered their amps on Free, these players serve Marshall’s vision. “The Moon,” for example (one of a few songs here first sketched on the Speaking for Trees DVD, on which it is titled “You”), unfurls with the gravity of a Velvet Underground ballad, Teenie’s fills flickering like comets as Marshall wonders, “When they put me six feet underground / Will the big, bad, beautiful you be around?” The Dylan-esque character portrait, “Willie,” distills Marshall’s epic 18-minute “Willie Deadwilder” (also on Trees), adding a jaunty bass line and a gospelish chorus to a song about love and fear. It’s utterly Cat Power, but in true soul tradition, the hurt is ministered to by an indomitable groove.
That’s part of the theme here. Marshall once suggested that her sad songs might be seen as triumphant for how their acceptance of sorrow could create strength. That’s the definition of soul music. Her title track might refer to a boxer (a city? a nation? a singer?) who “wanted to be the greatest” until “the rush of the flood” changed everything. Read it as literally as you like. Either way, the point is that there can be honor in owning up to your failures, your shame. In present-day America, that’s a radical concept.
Part of the queer thrill of a Cat Power show is the drama, real or staged, of Marshall trying to overcome her performance anxiety. You root for her, although in this fan’s experience, her shows usually fall apart anyway. On The Greatest, she rises like a wounded but unbowed lioness and conjures the uncertainty of the human condition with a new certainty. The record closes with “Love & Communication” — a sober play, perhaps, on Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” — a Crazy Horse rocker with jittery strings about romantic doubt in which Marshall invites us to “come along for the ride.” Thing is, we’re already there.