On the 2004 DVD Speaking for Trees, the Georgia-born singer-songwriter Chan Marshall stands in the middle of a forest and slowly works her way through stark, mournful covers of songs by luminaries like Bob Dylan, the Stones, Otis Redding and Duke Ellington. For almost two hours, the camera stays trained on Marshall as she wanders in and out of the frame, strums her electric guitar and sings like she wishes she were somewhere else. The effect is unsettling but intimate: Marshall, who has put out records as Cat Power since 1995, is one of those blessed, slightly unstable artists whose songs can find that expressway to your spine — and can also make you wonder how she finds her pants in the morning.
Cat Power albums never exactly come up and give you a kiss, though at their best they get under your skin something fierce. Marshall's most eerily affecting moments range from a mournful 2000 cover of "Satisfaction," which conjures a long night of cold sweat and bad thoughts, to 1996's "Not What You Want," five and a half minutes of droning catharsis that erupts into wails and what sounds like a fist (or a head) pounding against a wall. But Marshall has been mellowing in recent years, and The Greatest is her prettiest album yet. Recorded at Ardent Studios, the legendary Memphis soul factory, with former members of Booker T. and the MG's and Al Green's band, The Greatest works up subtly atmospheric, sweet-and-sour country folk, propelled by a voice that sounds weathered by bad love and two packs a day — but determined to make autumnal beauty out of her bad memories.
The older, more maniacally depressed Marshall pops up once on The Greatest: "Hate" is a crawling death-blues built around staccato guitar riffs, with a creepily murmured refrain borrowed from Kurt Cobain ("I hate myself, and I want to die"). On most of the other songs, Marshall prefers to weave a spell of subdued melodies and low-affect lushness rather than make you live her pain. On "Living Proof," organ swells and a sturdy funk-lite rhythm frame Marshall's takedown of a poisonous lover, which blends wordy jabs and deliciously elongated vowels. "Empty Shell," a dusty bouquet of cascading harmonies that ends with Marshall lying alone in bed, is a bona fide country song in its fiddle ornaments, its gentle shuffle and its ability to sound sweetly hopeful despite its heartbreak.
Marshall mostly uses her backup musicians as an extension of her piano, leaving plenty of room for her smoky swoops and swoons. On "Willie," the album's best song, swirling sax, brushed drums and reverb-laden guitar dance around descending piano chords as Marshall sings about an unlucky couple determined to make their love last, then drifts into a quiet first-person reverie about a lover she may have dreamed up. The song runs nearly six minutes, building to a gorgeous wash of barely intelligible coos, like a Van Morrison tone poem sung by a waif.
The music's easy lilt and Marshall's self-effacing vocals mean a couple of tunes hide their heads in their hoodies. "The Moon" sounds like a demo, with sluggish, slightly low-fi guitar and piano propping up a hazy melody and a tossed-off refrain about how "The moon is not only beautiful/It is so far away." But what's remarkable about The Greatest is how much Marshall accomplishes without ever straining. The closing "Love and Communication" works up an ominous groove of electric guitar and string slashes that sounds as if it could go on for hours. Marshall drops some typically obtuse poetry — "Drawn to the party like a spider filling up your guts" — but ultimately declares something better is on its way, providing a fittingly elliptical capper to an album full of bittersweet love and tiny pleasures.