Early in 2003, I was chatting with a grad student I’d gotten to know who happened to mention recently buying a bunch of new CDs. I asked her what she bought and she reeled off a list of artists—none of whom I’d ever heard of before. It surprised me a bit, and depressed me a bit, for some reason. I guess it had to do with the feeling of being more out of touch than I liked to consider myself, at the time. One of the artists she mentioned was called Cat Power, and the album was You Are Free. A little later I got the CD. I won’t say I fell in love with it, but it certainly left a lasting impression; in fact, I would list it as one of the key albums of that year.
Today’s song, “The Greatest,” is the title track from Cat Power’s follow-up, released in 2006. I’ve still never seen Chan Marshall, the singer/songwriter who “is” Cat Power, perform live, and I’ve heard she’s rather unpredictable at best. But the tour in support of this record was a great success, with her loose and lively, as seen in the video (from the Jools Holland show), and the musicianship on the record and the tour, featuring veterans of “southern soul” billed as the Memphis Rhythm Band, is high caliber, giving the record a glowing sound that’s very easy to listen to, unlike the much starker and riveting arrangements of You Are Free.
Today Chan Marshall is 42, which comes as a shock to me as I tend to think of artists I discovered around then as living in a perpetual state of “under 40.” Well, someone’s got to be under 40, but it won’t be people born in the Seventies for much longer. Which is a way of saying that this album, released days before Marshall turned 34, is mature work. I would say the song from the album that was the song back in 2006 was the funkier “Living Proof,” but for today I want the chastened, rain-washed sound of “The Greatest.” It’s opening solo piano would be at home on You Are Free, but then strings come in, and those slipping drums, to say nothing of the background vocals piping “greatest, greatest” like a bright echo.
The lyrics are rather elliptical but they do convey, in that great opening line “once I wanted to be the greatest,” a sense, if not of crushed hopes than at least of rueful awakening. “Then came the rush of the flood / The stars at night turned deep to dust.” I get the sense that aiming to be “the greatest” is one of those “beware, doll, you’re bound to fall” moments. Then there’s lots of imperatives—“melt me down, pin me in, leave no trace of grace just in your honor.” The latter phrase suggests a bit of score-settling, but it’s not at all clear what the emotional weight of the lines are. I take it as a kind of challenge: Ok, I’m down, so take me lower, really fuck me over, but “big black armor” and “culprit south” suggest a struggle still ongoing.
The main idea I get is that, if not “the greatest,” the singer will still rise above all this eventually. I say that because of the lovely little musical phrase that backs the line “for the later parade” which leads each time back to the opening strings. It’s a song that comes from a new sense of, perhaps, a lost chance and what that means—not so much a shattering of illusions as a coming to grips with what is—and finding the imperative to “secure the grounds / for the later parade.”
For some reason that phrase has been sounding sotto voce in the back of my mind, ever since I realized that I would post this month in honor of Marshall’s birthday. It was the tag line that announced the mood of the moment. That moment of the song and those firmly supportive strings throughout. There’s nothing weepy about the arrangement, for all that Marshall tends to swallow her words while the expressive feel of the “lower me down” passage does indeed dip. Still, “with brains to explain any feeling”—is that what it means to be “the greatest”? Maybe. Able to put something wordless into words.
I’m finding I’m not able to and that’s why I feel a bit haunted by this very elusive song which becomes more slippery the more I hear it. Finally, I realize, the interplay between the very expressive piano and the way Marshall sounds vocal notes creates the tone, almost as if singing were just a way of breathing. A rhythmic cascade “for the lead and the dregs of my bed / I’ve been sleeping” is paused and cleansed by “for the later parade,” with a sense of much riding on the latter for someone coming fully into her own.