What is it that makes us want to deconstruct art by units of time? Lists. We love making them. We love arguing over them. And here, on the verge of a new decade, we’re in a position to do the same again. What were the best albums of the past ten years?
Here at AD, we started talking it through and decided we weren’t going to add to the cacophony of lists being put out by various music pubs. There are enough of those. Rather, we elected to let our four main writers have a chance to write about any and all of the albums they felt shaped the last decade.
From now through the end of December, Monday through Thursday, AD will feature a post, or posts, from a particular writer detailing their favorite albums of the decade. On a given week there might be one album a writer talks about, there might be six, but they’ll get a chance to have their say on everything that comes to mind. Our hope for you, the reader, is that you’ll jump in with your comments on the album selections – tell us why you agree or disagree – and also be exposed to some albums that you may have missed over the last ten years. Now, as the decade starts to wind down, let’s celebrate.
With her collection of re-imagined covers–the plainly titled, The Covers Record–Chan Marshall powerfully mutated the tone and intent of others’ words to strip down and nearly perfect the kind of introspective, often hopeless, experience she began cultivating during the latter half of the ’90s. Fraught with emotional tumult and coupled with her now infamous and bizarre onstage meltdowns and inconsistencies (if she made it onstage), her sound seemed to have been defined, her persona fully established. In the ’90s, Cat Power was on her way. By the 2000s, Cat Power had arrived.
So, by definition, 2003’s You Are Free could’ve been deemed a departure. It carried a decidedly louder sound (Dave Grohl contributed, and Dave Grohl makes things loud), it contained the same diffident sense of dread that fans had almost come to expect. And that made The Greatest something of a surprise.
Yes, it has much of the uncertainty, underlying turmoil and, at turns, desperation of her previous work, but it isn’t entirely hopeless. It isn’t so much consumed and overwhelmed by self-examination as it is simply introspective. While her previous work could leave one concerned for the author, this feels like a healthier outlook. And there are a few possible explanations for that.
One, label Matador helped package the session, utilizing Memphis music industry stalwarts like Teenie Hodges (Al Green) to assist, a professionalism and polish that is readily apparent. Two, not yet sober, Marshall was at least on the brink of sobriety, finally, maybe, seeing a way out of her physically damaging lifestyle, if not her perceived emotional imbalance. (Note: We’re assuming here that both her now sobriety and always imbalance are genuine.) It was lifestyle and emotional state, it should be said, that likely prompted Matador to take a heavier hand in arranging the supporting band and recording environment in the first place.
That fact that she was reigned in a bit, and the subsequent polish, was off-putting to some. In particular, a few “Indie” apologists were a little turned off, seeing elements of The Greatest as a contradiction to her earlier self. Some pieces were even likened to adult contemporary music. A somewhat accurate observation at times, but one that shouldn’t be made pejoratively. Ultimately, the record, which indeed does see Marshall taking some more upbeat, coffee-house approaches (e.g. “Willie“), could be called more populist if anything. But being populist doesn’t make it bad. In a way, it’s part of what makes it good.
The (somewhat) sunnier instrumental flourishes don’t in the least take away from the same biting portrayal of insecurities and foibles that drew fans to her in the first place. Her sultry rasp still cuts through each word, seduces both sexes and lingers long after in the ear. And though covers are absent from the album for the first time in her career, Marshall’s propensity toward using them is toyed with a bit, as the title track tinkers with “Moon River” chords throughout, and “The Moon” teases something akin to “Five-String Serenade.”
In creating a fuller, more inviting experience, she has created a better experience; a more coherently crafted version of what Cat Power always was that resonated with an audience that before never knew she existed. In the end, that’s kind of the point. And it’s part of what makes this her greatest effort to date. words/ j. crosby