When I first listened to Cat Power’s latest, The Greatest, I didn’t get it. There were no hit singles, nothing to satisfy my short attention span. Most of it hobbles along at the same sad, indie-country rhythm, akin to Emmylou Harris on an opium binge. Singer/songwriter Chan Marshall’s vocals, although lyrically intelligent, often come off as unintelligible. She speaks with a whisper on the verge of a nervous breakdown, with the coquettish and careless insight of an art-school-dwelling Sylvia Plath. This is precisely why I was taken aback on the second listen. Unlike many pop prophets, Marshall’s emotions take time to salvage from the deep.
Marshall’s music never lost its childlike innocence. On “After It All,” a whistle supplies the dominant musical motif and her voice sings under a saloon piano and a slew of sad-core guitars. “Lived in Bars” builds from a sparse Fiona Apple ballad to a sing-along reminiscent of a Supremes refrain, replete with “shoop-a-doops” to its end. This is low-fi fuckfest songwriting at its finest, an art form in which anything and everything goes. Innocent as it is, the lyrics take a turn for the nearest watering hole. Instead of heading toward mainstream accessibility, Cat Power dives face first into the sad-eyed unconscious, face first into an alternate universe ruled by nostalgic regret.
And beautifully enough, the album still manages to be accessible. The lead track, “The Greatest,” lasts a pop-worthy three minutes, with lyrics alluding to failure, submission, and ultimate redemption. When Marshall says, “Once I wanted to be the greatest / No wind or waterfall could stop me,” you can’t help but think of Ben Folds and his contemporaries. She teases with a hint of the ordinary and flirts with the indie rock fear of the mainstream pop world. But the lyrics soon turn schizoid – “For the lack of the drugs / My faith had been sleeping.” Post-divorce Ben Folds, at least.
It’s sad to wonder how this record will fare in a sensationalistic musical market. Cat Power thrives on the subtleties, rapture and deep thought derived from the sixth and seventh listen. Not many of us, however, have the time or patience to delve that far into Marshall’s psychology. 2002’s You Are Free seemed a lot more immediate in that respect, and maybe her onstage breakdown antics will spur the media to give her the attention she needs. In all reality, however, Marshall probably doesn’t give a shit. Albums like The Greatest stem more from artistic and aesthetic desires than from career-building aspirations. That, my readers, is the true indie rock aesthetic. And that is why you should keep listening.
[Matt Cappiello, we apologize. Final word count: 438.]