You don’t need to know anything about Chan Marshall’s antics—her breakdown on stage in New York seven years ago, her angry and defensive interview with Pitchfork, etc—to know what kind of stability she has. One needs only to listen to her catalog, a collection of melancholic and minimalist folk. In all of her works, specifically of late, albums took that base and incorporated other essences—lounge piano, jazz, sharp guitar patterns. The Greatest, her seventh record and fifth for Matador, finds Marshall returning home.
Featuring famed Hi Records studio musicians Teenie and Flick Hodges and a host of other acclaimed players from the Golden Memphis era, The Greatest seductively saunters through a smoky bar. Marshall’s songs retain their intimacy and discreetness, and are now textured with Memphis horns and inebriated string arrangements.
It’s untrue that music has to be “cinematic” to evoke imagery—The Greatest is all sepia-toned tumbleweed depression and whiskey sours. A slow piano arrangement opens the album on the title track before an ethereal wave of back-tracked guitar inconspicuously rolls in. Soon, Marshall begins her croon of lost dreams and regret. This subject matter is inherent in all of her works, but is encapsulated in the album’s first line: “Once I wanted to be / The greatest…” (mp3). A chorus of background vocals eerily overlap the last two words, but Marshall tempers the sadness of the entire album with a romantic sensibility. Depression without hope is just sad—Marshall remains wistful despite the austere surface, this adds the depth and quixotic fancy that prevents her music from falling into the same boring cry-a-thon territory of, say, Beck’s Sea Change.
Marshall’s voice is undeniably original—weak, fragile, and hazy with a brassy timbre and drawl to match her roots. The arrangements behind it are reminiscent of the idiosyncrasies of classic Al Green, pared down and slowed to match Marshall’s style. The album, as such, plays out like a singer performing lost Stax classics in a dim lounge. This makes sense—the album was recorded at Stax alternate studio Ardent, where Big Star and Dylan have also recorded.
The influx of creativity in modern music has caused artists to be nomadic in style and substance—career arcs bear more resemblance to sine waves than an actual arc. So it’s refreshing that some people remain constant and consistent. Like the rest of her material, The Greatest is sturdy and unfailing. Predictability isn’t necessarily a negative quality—there is comfort in knowing what to expect from a Cat Power album 11 years into her career, and yet the formula isn’t tired. Especially after 2005, which saw a lack of new material from familiar artists in favor of up-and-comers, it’s nice to open the new year with something equally new and old from one of our favorite songwriters.