Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The top 10 albums of 2006: No. 1

Cat Power
The Greatest

Life is an ocean, and Chan Marshall's always treading water.

Melancholia. Abandonment. Loneliness. Alcohol abuse. Self-loathing. Isolation. She knows them all and knows them well. When she sings, her words pour out in a viscous syrup of grief.

Yet for an album that chronicles her darkest hours, it offers a remarkable amount of warmth. Recorded over three months in Memphis, The Greatest carries the imprint of Al Green by way of his guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, bassist Leroy Hodges and other Southern luminaries. Together they salve Marshall's scarred vocals. Call it red-eyed soul.

Buoyed by the Memphis Rhythm Band, "Living Proof" and "Could We" practically amble, which for a Cat Power song is pretty brisk. "Could We," brimming with nostalgia, retraces idealistic days of teenage love: "I'll let you walk me up the street / Back home / Thank you / It was great / Let's make another date."

The title track is beauty and sadness incarnate. What begins as a cautious piano melody with shimmers of pedal steel blossoms into the most lushly orchestrated song in her catalog. A string section weeps, and the background voices echo "the greatest, the greatest, the greatest," as if they're ghosts of the past or thoughts rising from her subconscious.

The "rush of the flood" forces her resignation, though from what is uncertain. The lyrics "Lower me down / Pin me in / Secure the grounds" indicate her ceding control to another, putting herself in someone else's hands. They would seem to hint at her time in the psychiatric ward of Miami's Mount Sinai Medical Center, but The Greatest was recorded before then, so perhaps they foretell it.

Prior to her institutionalization, she often turned to alcohol, and "Lived in Bars" reflects upon those nights of drinking to oblivion. A wheeze of saxophone drifts in like cigarette smoke to join her at the piano. Marshall's hoarse. She's been crying. "There's nothing like living in a bottle," she sings. And that's when you realize the title is positively Freudian. What better word than "bars" could describe how she feels trapped? And whether they're made of iron or glass or her own nerves, they form just as strong a prison.

By the time "Hate" rolls around, she's all alone, guitar twinging in an empty room. Her friends are worried about her. "Do you believe she said that?" goes the call, and the response is heartbreaking: She softly croaks, "I said I hate myself and waaaaauhhhnt to die."

Death also shows up in more subtle ways on The Greatest. In "Islands," she says that if "my sailor" isn't coming back, she'll "sleep eternally." During "The Moon," she asks if the "big bad beautiful you" will still be around "when they put me six feet underground."

On such songs, the accompaniment is skeletal, emphasizing her feeling of isolation. Elsewhere, however, her bandmates accentuate their instruments --- a woozy saxophone at the end of "Willie," fiddle at the beginning of "Empty Shell," organ on "Living Proof" --- as if each tone is a memory or emotion flaring to the surface, then diving back into repression.

"Love & Communication," which even has some heaves of electric guitar, is the busiest piece on the album, and its comparatively bombastic spirit sounds triumphant in light of Marshall's recent months. She's sober now, or at least on the path to sobriety. Her live shows have greater focus and energy. She credits the Memphis Rhythm Band with boosting her confidence and allaying her stage fright. She's doing interviews and recording more material.

When she's surrendering control on the title track to The Greatest, she speaks of a "later parade." With any luck, she's found it.

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