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Cat Power

Matador

For as many careers that depression has destroyed, it has made at least one: Chan Marshall’s. On her seventh album, The Greatest, the woman who is Cat Power once again relies on her soul-crushing best friend to inform her lyrics, if not all of her music. Her blues are all dolled up and overdramatized, which is probably for the better: The Greatest is listenable; Silence With Intermittent Wailing probably wouldn’t have been. The most memorable song on Cat Power’s previous album, 2003’s You Are Free, was “Good Woman,” a heartbreaking ballad in which Marshall confirmed her vulnerability with backup vocals sung by a chorus of little girls. Here, we get the gorgeous title track, wherein Marshall harmonizes with herself over layers of strings, drums, and, naturally, her old black and whites as she sings about not being able to live up to your own expectations: “Once I wanted to be the greatest/No wind or waterfall could stop me/And then came the rush of the flood/The stars at night turned into dust.” Remember, this is the Chan-in-Memphis album, recorded with the help of the Hodges brothers, the soul legends who backed Al Green in the late ’60s and early ’70s. So it’s a lusher Cat Power affair than we’re used to. “Lived in Bars,” for example, features not only cute little “shhh-bang”s behind the chorus but also some smoky brass. Of course, if you need a lift, don’t listen too closely: “There’s nothing like living in a bottle,” Marshall sings. “Nothing like ending it all for the world.” On “Where Is My Love,” she flies right by depressed, passes bipolar, and lands smack in the middle of schizophrenic, repeating the searching title phrase over equally lost-sounding piano and violin. Though that ought to be a winning presentation, the song is the disc’s only real misstep, with Marshall coming across like a deranged bag lady asking if you’ve seen her dead husband. Elsewhere, she fares better, whistling the melody of a number about a physically abusive relationship and finding solace in a little pedal steel as she yearns for a sailor who probably isn’t coming back. Self-conscious and theatrical? Sure. But The Greatest’s greatest trick is sounding idealized and real at once. Behind all the artfully smudged eyeliner, we have to assume, Chan Marshall really is crying. —Rachel Beckman