‘The greatest’ comes from the album of the same name, where it keeps company with several other songs that I number among my favourites of the last ten years – and another handful which aren’t quite so accomplished, despite the alchemical presence on the album of alumni of the Hi Records rhythm section. In effect the LP is an illustration of what the song is about, namely coming to terms with your limitations; with not as it turns out being the greatest, despite having had the surfeit of ambition and chutzpah to suggest that you could be.
Ironically of course, with this song, as well as ‘Living proof’, ‘Lived in bars’, ‘Could we’ and ‘Love and communication’, Chan Marshall proved that undoubtedly she is great, an idiosyncratic and gifted singer mining a seam of soulful blues for the 21st century. These songs should easily stand the test of time, and find themselves played and sung by many others down the coming years, in just the way that earlier songs recorded in Memphis have, and will. Coming for Cat Power after six LPs which didn’t quite manage that achievement signals that there’s hope for erstwhile failures yet.
Unusually, the man who sold me my copy of The greatest wrote a note on the order slip, and it feels right to quote it here verbatim:
‘Like cats in general Chan Marshall may be wilful, unpredictable and – shall we say – of a mind of her own. But irresistibly lithe and charming, almost intoxicatingly so. In her languid Southern way she extracts nuances that are far beyond mere mortals – the Egyptians would have worshipped her…’
I like it when purveyors of second-hand goods go beyond their remit.