Released 10 years ago today (January 20, 2006), the album finds the perpetually rootless Marshall returning home and taking stock of where she’s been. By this point, she’d already earned a reputation as a tragic heroine—a sad-eyed beauty whose harrowing lyrics, wounded delivery, and public instability seemed to foretell an unhappy ending. With The Greatest, Marshall perked up just enough to shift the conversation from her erraticism to her artistry, if only for a minute.
She did so with the help of an all-star band staffed by Stax and Hi Records alum and led by guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, best known for co-writing and playing on the Al Green classics “Take Me to the River” and “Love and Happiness.” If Marshall was intimidated by the personnel, Teenie and producer Stuart Sikes made her feel at home. They also worked quickly, turning Marshall’s simple guitar and piano songs into fleshed-out soul jams they committed to tape in just a few days.
“I wanted to make something for my mom and my grandmother, but it could have been better,” Marshall told Fader. “It could have been so much better.” She might have regretted not singing more warmly or openly, but the juxtaposition of her lingering unease and the band’s absolute comfort is part of what makes The Greatest so unique. The songs evoke ‘60s soul more in the emotion and instrumentation than in the overall presentation, rarely sounding like they could have come from 1968.
And yet the music was familiar enough to play on Starbucks and Barnes and Noble sound systems and give Marshall her highest chart position to date: No. 34 on the Billboard 200. At a time when Neko Case, Jenny Lewis, Conor Oberst, and other indie artists with boomer-approved pre-punk influences were moving toward the mainstream, Marshall was ready for her close-up.
Well, almost ready. Shortly after the album dropped, Marshall suffered a breakdown and checked herself into a Miami psychiatric hospital, delaying her promo tour with the Memphis Rhythm Band. She eventually got well, sobered up, hit the road, and delivered some of the best-received performances of her career, but 10 years later, she’s still seen as volatile and unpredictable. Whether those tags are justified, she’s also a survivor, and The Greatest speaks to her resilience. It’s a record about lost love, disappointment, and even suicidal thoughts, and yet Marshall makes it through all 12 tracks without being knocked down. In boxing, that’s called going the distance. In soul music, it’s the whole freaking point. Read on for our track-by-track review.
“The Greatest”: Although it’s sung in the past tense—“Once I wanted to be the greatest”—the disc’s title track and thematic centerpiece isn’t about giving up. Sober and reassuring, the piano and strings are 6 a.m. coffee for a narrator who’s been through a long night and knows there are many more to come. Why don’t they throw parades for noble strivers who work hard and always come up short? They’d have to close the streets every day.
“Living Proof”: Sunshine creeps through the blinds as Marshall tries to prove that love is real, or maybe that life is worth living. “My beating heart the anchor to a ship so warm,” she sings with jazzy inflection, emboldened by the chipper swing of the guitar, organ, and drums. The only evidence she can offer her lover is her own vitality—which means this isn’t a hopeless case.
“Lived In Bars”: Marshall stumbles unapologetically up the stairway to heaven and demands to be let in. “We know your house so very well,” she tells god, speaking for all the drunks and sinners she’s unashamed to hang with. Around 2:20, the music looses its bluesy hue, and the horns left Marshall higher and higher, toward a revelation too powerful to dismiss as self-delusion.
“Could We”: The swing returns as Marshall rediscovers the thrill of new love. The best date of your life is always the one you’re about to make. The horn section gets it.
“Empty Shell”: Had this been an album of classic country tunes, “Empty Shell” could’ve been the title track. Over a can-kicking bassline and moaning fiddle—both of which present heartache as an everyday ache and pain—Marshall imagines some new girl perched on her old guy’s lap. “And I don't need you,” she tells him, red-eyed and roughed up but wiser for the experience. “And I don't want you anymore.”
“Willie”: Inspired by a three-hour ride with a chatty Florida cabbie, “Willie” opens with the romantic tale of a wounded man and patient woman who’ve realized they’re “on the same side.” In the second verse, the focus shifts to Marshall, who’s partway to true love but still playing against the man in her life. Though her heart remains “a worried thing,” the lazy-morning piano and gentle bursts of brass suggest a truce is imminent.
“Where Is My Love”: When Disney finally makes an animated feature about an unmarried 30-something non-princess who wonders whether she ought to be settling down and having kids, this string-laden piano ballad can be the theme song. Marshall sings with hushed drama and unabashed vulnerability, like she’s ready to admit there’s a part of her that still believes in fairytale romance.
“The Moon”: The Cat Power of old returns on this mysterious guitar ballad about the moon: a cold, beautiful, distant thing she obviously feels a kinship toward. It sounds like she, Teenie, and drummer Steve Potts cut the tune at 3 a.m., bathed in pale light. “Everyone says they know you,” sings Marshall, so fragile it hurts.
“Islands”: The shortest song here, “Islands” is 1:44 of honky-tonk longing without histrionics. Marshall likens her man to a seafaring conqueror—a guy whose spoils are worth nothing if he’s not around to share them.
“After It All”: After a bust-up, Chan’s man comes back, looking to make peace and crawl into a familiar bed. The sprightly saloon piano and casual whistling suggest Marshall has been through this before. The line he’s selling: “It was never up to you and me.” Marshall’s not sure she’s buying.
“Hate”: On the only tune sparer than “The Moon,” a defiantly depressed Marshall grabs her electric guitar and imagines others gossiping about her quoting an old Nirvana song title: “I hate myself and I want to die.” She sings with a shivery whisper, like she knows how badly she’s spooking everyone and doesn’t really care. She wants her heart to explode; this song is the next-best thing.
“Love & Communication”: Over grungy guitars and stabbing strings reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Psycho shower scene, only slowed way down, Marshall again ditches the soul conceit and cuts her way through a tangled narrative about bad romance. It’s Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” painted black and covered in spiders.