CAT POWER: THE GREATEST (2006)
1) The Greatest; 2) Living Proof; 3) Lived In Bars; 4) Could We; 5) Empty Shell; 6) Willie; 7) Where Is My Love; 8) The Moon; 9) Islands; 10) After It All; 11) Hate; 12) Love & Communication; 13*) Up And Gone; 14*) Dreams.
Yes, I totally agree that Cat Power makes unpredictable records — the only thing you can always predict is that the next one will be just as sad and introspective as the previous one, but as to the melodic content, arrangements, influences, they will be constantly reshuffled, as befits the proverbial Artist In Constant Search Of The Grail. The only problem is, you can also be sure that not every such combination will work. The many ingredients on You Are Free made it work better than anything she'd ever done before — and for her next album, she would make an even less predictable move: to Memphis, of all places. Considering that she was born and raised in Georgia, and allegedly traveled a lot through the South in her younger days (including a brief schooling period in Memphis, among other locations), this «back to roots» thing may not seem too surprising; but whether it did her any good is not clear.
The entire album, named after its first track (and I bet most people mistook it for a best-of compilation originally, which could at least partially account for the drastic increase in sales...), is a collection of generally slow, moody, piano- and acoustic-based country (or is that country-soul?) ballads — perfectly normal singer-songwriterish balladry, although Chan still hates the idea of a repetitive chorus, normally sung (with Chan's pretty, raspy, crackling voice rarely rising above or falling below mid-level volume) and normally played, as she enlists some local Memphis pros to assist her with the arrangements (the most famous of these is arguably Teenie Hodges, the long-time collaborator with Al Greene and the co-author of ʽTake Me To The Riverʼ). As unpredictable as the decision is in general, you can still feel it ties in with her aesthetics — here we take old school R&B, soul, and country music, and reroute them to match the Cat Power vision, just as we did that with Delta blues and ʽSatisfactionʼ years ago.
Unfortunately, it also means a return to general boredom. Where You Are Free was an album of songs, The Greatest is an album of moods, or, rather, of one mood — the Cat Power mood, set up on the title track and gently (with just a subtle bit of turbulence) floating you all the way to the end. The pianos tinkle, the guitars punctuate, the strings glide, the rhythm section is underpaid, and, once again, there is not much beyond basic atmosphere, charisma, and «psychologism» to make the music linger on longer in your brain than the time it takes it to float by. For consistency's sake, if I rarely have a good word to throw in about «commercial» country-tinged singer-songwriters with little musical talent, but a pretty face (and other body parts) to gain traction through video imagery, I honestly don't see how I could generate good words about an album like this — no better and no worse than literally thousands of such records, with the only difference being that «commercial» singer-songwriters at least try to write actual songs and fail, whereas Chan does not even try. Not this time, at least.
I suppose that the underlying artistic theme here is «humility», as we learn from the title track (formally a tale of an aspiring boxer, but an allegory is always an allegory): "Once I wanted to be the greatest... and then came the rush of the flood... Melt me down, into big black armour, leave no trace of grace, just in your honour...". I assume that "greatest" here does not imply simplistic fame and fortune, for which she never struggled in the first place, but rather just the basic desire to stand out from the rest — and now, it is as if she is acknowledging how wrong that was, and how preferable it is to be "melted down". This is nice, but, just like before, there is a contradiction, or, at least, an impasse: if this is so, I am automatically cleared of all responsibility for writing a negative review, because there's nothing like a negative review to help stabilize a sense of humility, and besides, if she no longer wants to be "the greatest", then how could a record of hers be "the greatest"?
With this logical problem on my mind, I find it hard to concentrate on any of the individual songs. There are tunes about loss, betrayal, and loneliness; a few about hatred; one grungy Neil Young-ian epic that could have been decent if it made at least a little effort to evolve and develop itself (ʽLove & Communicationʼ); a few deconstructions of classic folk and country patterns (for Cat Power, deconstructing a song is always understood literally — as in, when instead of transporting a boombox, you take all of it apart and carry all the individual parts and bolts in a bundle, for no reason other than you like being all encumbered and messy); and maybe just a few sonic gimmicks here and there (the brass fanfare on ʽCould Weʼ, the nonchalant whistling on ʽAfter It Allʼ) that can serve as delimiters between tracks, just because your tired mind cannot seek out any others. And, of course, if you really so desire, you can burrow deep inside and feast on subtlety after subtlety — but then be sure to make room for those hundreds of singer-songwriters, cruelly bypassed by critical fame, who would very much like to claim that they can be just as subtle, only they never thought about claiming to be the carriers of Cat Power.
In short, she's back to her usual tricks, except this time, doing it in such an accessible manner that using the album as background muzak would be a perfectly easy task for just about anybody living in the quiet world of easy listening / adult contemporary / neo-country etc. Conversely, this is the reason why I don't give it a thumbs down — the album raises no negative emotion whatsoever, and with all this professional musicianship, and with Chan using her voice in a wise and restricted manner, it is pleasant and, dare I say this, intelligent background muzak. But it does not succeed in involving me on any serious emotional level, and its amorphousness is quite a bitchin' disappointment after the tight focus and shapefulness of You Are Free. Oh well, at least I hope those Memphis musicians were well paid for their work, however aimless it may have been.