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Fragile Yet Strong
on 1 July 2007
The Greatest is Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall)'s seventh album. However, I had not heard this artist perform until early 2006 when I caught a radio review of this album and, in particular, a playing of "In the Bars". What caught and held my attention that morning were those lonely, sad and delicate vocals with little more than a guitar to support them. She may have caught me in a moment of weakness, but it was hard to forget that voice.
The album was recorded in Memphis, Tennessee - "home" to soul legend Al Green and a style of soul music that was noted for its use of melancholic horns, organ, bass, and drums. Marshall keeps this link to the city's great past by enlisting the likes of "Teenie" Hodges and Steve Potts to be her backing band. These men would have recorded in the past with many of the great artists to record in Memphis in the 60s and 70s.
Despite the album's name, any notion of superiority or swagger that this may suggest is stripped away by no later than the opening verse of "The Greatest", which is also the album's opening number. It is a song about a man remembering the time in his youth when all he wanted to be was the greatest boxer of them all:
Once I wanted to be the greatest
No wind or waterfall could stall me
And then came the rush of the flood
Stars of the night turned deep to dust
Naturally, to speak of "The Greatest" in boxing is to speak of the sporting colossus that was Muhammad Ali. I especially like the following verse in that respect:
Once I wanted to be the greatest
Two fists of solid rock
With brains that could explain
Indeed, in his fantastic biography on the man, David Remnick recalled a poignant moment when the two were watching a recording of Ali beating Sonny Liston in 1964 to become heavyweight champion of the world for the first time:
"But wasn't I pretty? I was twenty... twenty what? Twenty-two. Now I'm fifty-four. Fifty-four." He [Ali] said nothing for a minute or so. Then he said, "Time flies. Flies. Flies. It flies away." Then, very slowly, Ali lifted his hand and fluttered his fingers like the wings of a bird. "It just flies away", he said.
I recall this incident, as what was to befall Ali in terms of illness is the fragility of human nature that this song captures. We dream, we aspire, we may even achieve what we set out to do. However, life is a path of many turns and none of us can see how things will necessarily work out.
The music on "The Greatest" is haunting slow-tempoed strings and piano, that give Marshall's brittle and husky voice full rein over the song. This style is repeated on "Lived in Bars", Where is My Love" and "Hate". Of the twelve songs on the album, these also constitute the four that I like best for that reason. "Hate" is more like Marshall's previous work. It is a troubled song that ends with the lines:
I said I hate me myself and I
I said I hate myself and I want to die
"Where is My Love" is a simply constructed song that sees Marshall plaintively cry out for her absent lover to return. "Lived in Bars" is a song with religious connotations of hope and salvation:
And nothing like ending it all for the world
We're so glad you will come back
Every living lion will lay in your lap
It also features the novelty of Marhsall throwing out the question of who will play "drums, guitar or organ with chorus" and being answered within a few lines by the band providing a clearly contrasting double-time ending to the song.
The remaining songs are worth a listen, as they show the greatest interaction between Marshall and her backing band (especially the likes of "Living Proof", "Willie", and "Love and Communication"). However, they do not hold my attention as much as the others. I suspect the reason is that I have always appreciated classic soul and RnB, without truly liking it. However, I suspect that there is much there too for others to hear and enjoy.
A purchase well worth making.