People don't listen to Cat Power for cheery uplift, unless they're trying to make their own miserable lives seem better by comparison. Chan Marshall, the fragile genius behind the name, found her sad voice more than a decade ago, and her remarkable catalog, even in its brightest moments, plumbs heartsickness so thoroughly and passionately that it's a wonder she hasn't simply expired from the ache of fashioning it into bare-bones songs. Her last album, 2003's You Are Free, hit rock bottom (see the shattering "Names") and simultaneously reached an artistic apex. Where else to go, then, but at least a little ways up?
To start the climb, Marshall enlisted players from Al Green's old Memphis soul band for The Greatest, a disc of new compositions—never mind the misleading title. Longtime Cat Power fans needn't worry about a seismic change, though: Unlike Frank Black's semi-disastrous Honeycomb, recorded with Nashville session pros, The Greatest doesn't compromise a beloved vision to fit an unlikely sound. Green's old compatriots—guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges contributes most definitively—serve the songs with championship restraint, adding colors and textures that Marshall never would've found with indie-rockers, but that never cheapen the impact.
Those looking for unmitigated downers may be jolted by the pleasantly tinkling roadhouse piano and the sweetly whistled refrain of "After It All," but the song is simply a case of Marshall housing her sorrowful songs—this one about the return of an abusive lover—in brighter packages. Reflective of its title, "Islands" is almost sunny, but its walking bass and slide guitar provide the bed for lyrics about eternal sleep. Delivered starkly, "Empty Shell" could've been another entry in Cat Power's deeply dark catalog, but here, with hoedown violins and smart backing vocals, it sounds like classic country. The gorgeous title track is elevated by a string section that echoes "Moon River" for effect. Marshall nods to the old school with "Hate," an effective, bare-bones chiller, but otherwise sticks to The Greatest's plan, challenging herself to explore familiar themes with remarkable new dressing. In its own still-quiet way, it's a triumph.