Week 36: The Greatest

Another album which takes me back to a specific time in my life, Cat Power’s The Greatest was a frequent soundtrack on the last of several occasions on which I’d taken up running. The effects of what turned out to be multiple sclerosis had made me too much of a liability playing ultimate frisbee and I went through a phase of doing laps of the Meadows. The trouble with running is that it’s a bit dull – it takes too long for the scenery to change. Free exercise tip: cycling’s better. You cover more miles, the scenery changes, and if your running gait is compromised by a recalcitrant nervous system, it doesn’t wreck your knees.

Listening to it again, it doesn’t sound much like running music, but I wasn’t much of a runner Or at least, by my late 20s, in the middle of an MS relapse, I wasn’t much of a runner . At 13 I was the fastest distance runner in my class at school and tried out for the county championships – whereupon I discovered the meaning of the phrase ‘big fish in a small pool’ and realised that things are a bit different when everyone was fastest in their class.

Anyway, to return to the subject in hand, Cat Power’s The Greatest is a kind of lolloping relaxed indie blues. It opens with the title track, The Greatest with its repeated refrain ‘once I wanted to be the greatest’ which has something of a melancholy earworm quality. It is tempting to read something autobiographical into it. The sound of someone with six albums behind her and a modicum of Radio 6 indie success (I don’t recall whether Pitchfork was a thing back then, but it’s the kind of record I could imagine them being fond of), but who nonetheless has come to realise that if it was platinum records and stadium success she was looking for (and I’m not sure that she necessarily ever was) or, for that matter, recording an obscure but critically acclaimed all-time classic that nobody buys but that famous musicians later list on their Baker’s Dozen at The Quietus.

While we’re on the subject of autobiographical songs, Power’s struggles with alcoholism are well enough documented, and Lived In Bars for all the world like someone with a stinking hangover recounting not so much a wild night as a lifetime of drunkenness – “Lived in bars and danced on tables/ Hotels, trains and ships that sail/ We swim with sharks/ And fly with aeroplanes out of here ” In someone else’s hands, it might sound obvious and clumsy, but Power has the voice to pull it off. She manages to sound tired and lugubrious without ever coming across as lazy. She hits the notes. Another song which her voice and song-writing skills cover for lyrical inanity is Moon. “The moon is not only beautiful/ It’s so far away The moon is not only ice-cold/ It is here to stay.”

It does rather benefit from the extra instrumentation – the horns and organ on album closing Love and Communication (the closest thing on the record to an entirely conventional indie-rock song, with just touch more distortion on the electric guitar than elsewhere on the record) , the backing singers on The Greatest (actually, I looked up the album credits, and there aren’t any. I can only assume that Cat Power is recording and multi-tracking herself to create an effect poised somewhere between Memphis and Motown), and the 1920s lounge piano that dominates After it all.

The weakest moments were the rather stripped back Hate (featuring a nod to Nirvana with its refrain of ‘I hate myself and want to die‘) the over-long Willie, an outlier on a record where the songs do not otherwise outstay their welcome, and the repetitive and unimaginative Where is my love. But even they are not terrible – not tracks that had me reaching for the skip button.

For all that it’s not going to change anyone’s life – ok, maybe it will, or it did, but not mine – this is a good record, one I was happy to be reacquainted with. Maybe not my first choice if I was going to go back to ‘my record collection circa 2007 – that would probably be Thea Gilmore’s Rules for Jokers but probably rather this than a lot of other things.  It didn’t make me want to go out and buy new running shoes though.

Highlights: The Greatest, Moon, Love and Communication


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