Ask a friend what type of music they like to listen to, and more often than not you’ll be greeted with a short response: “I like everything, except country.” This is assuming you’re North of the Mason-Dixon line, of course. It should be pointed out that judging country music by the sugar-coated pop that most rock and roll fans are exposed to on country radio stations is the equivalent of judging all rock music on the basis of Britney Spears and N’Sync. But press the same friend further, and Johnny Cash’s name will invariably come up as the exception to their anti-country rule.
The man in black crosses cultural and geographic boundaries faster than a swarm of killer bees. He’s the exception for a reason, too. His latest album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, proves why. After 77 years, he still wrings his heart out on every song. The man never strays far from the same emotional themes he’s been crooning about since the ‘50s, singing songs of love, loss, and redemption as the concepts appear in the dirty light of day.
American IV: The Man Comes Around is the fourth installment in Cash’s decade-long partnership with hip-hop/rock producer Rick Rubin. Cash admits that when Rubin first approached him a decade ago in his dressing room, he was surprised. Rubin was in the process of starting a new record label, and wanted to record Cash alone in the studio, singing his favorite songs. At the time, Rubin was known for his production work on albums by the Beastie Boys, Run DMC and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But Cash says that Rubin’s enthusiasm was convincing and contagious.
As it turns out, both men’s instincts were sharp. With Rubin’s help, Cash has won over a new generation of listeners. His albums are once again stripped down to an acoustic guitar and the man’s infamous, resonating baritone voice. This latest album shares many of the same qualities as the other three recordings Cash has made with Rubin. Each include a wide array of covers, most of which are eclectic choices you’d never expect to hear Cash sing He also performs interesting new renditions of his own work, originally recorded decades ago.
The title track of American IV: The Man Comes Around opens the album, and begins with Cash reading from the Book of Revelations in the New Testament. Cash says the song is based on a dream he had several years ago while touring England. In the dream, he saw Queen Elizabeth, who told Cash that he was just like a thorn bush caught in a whirlwind. He says that he couldn’t understand what the words meant, until years later he came across the same line in the Book of Revelations. The surprise inspired Cash to begin writing. Thirty-three verses, and several years later, Cash decided it was time to record the song. So he pared down what he had written, and set to work with Rubin in the studio.
What he turns out on the album is powerful. Driven by Cash’s somber, matter-of-fact voice, he tells the song like a story, using melodic incantation in place of singing. The reedy, acoustic guitar accompanies him, supported by the occasional piano crescendo. It might seem hard to believe that the song is as potent as anything Cash has ever recorded. But really, it is.
It’s also the only song composed specifically for the album. It’s a tradition that Cash and Rubin started with their first collaboration, 1994’s indelible American Recordings, which featured covers of songs by Tom Waits and Loudon Wainwright, as well as Danzig. As before, some of what appears on this latest album works and some of it is just plain odd.
Cash says he covered “Hurt”, originally written by Trent Reznor and recorded by Nine Inch Nails, because it was the best anti-drug song he’d ever heard. Considering Cash’s well-chronicled fight with amphetamine and alcohol abuse, he’s earned the right to sing it. Cash devastates with this acoustic version of the electronic song. He sings with a quiet anger that would convince a listener who had not heard the original that he wrote it himself.
Cash’s bone-weariness serves him well in his cover of “In My Life”, the Beatles song written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and originally released on Rubber Soul. It’s a song about doting over the past, and Cash has a long history to reminisce over. Meanwhile, “I Hung My Head” off of Sting’s 1996 album Mercury Falling is a commanding reminder of the legend’s ability to place the listener in anyone’s shoes he chooses. The song intimately relates the shame of an accidental murderer sentenced to death, told from the guilty man’s point of view. Its evocative lyrics will have you making eleventh hour pleas to your governor for leniency, before you realize that it’s just a song.
Other covers on the album don’t work quite as well. “Personal Jesus”, written and recorded by Martin Gore with Depeche Mode, is poorly arranged. The acoustic guitar, here played by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Fusciante, is a poor substitute for the cranking Roland synthesizers that Depeche Mode used in their original version. Meanwhile, Cash, who calls the song one of the most evangelical gospel songs he’s ever recorded, sounds like a parody of himself. “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, written and recorded by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle, sounds washed out, as if it were recorded as an afterthought. Fiona Apple makes a guest appearance in the song’s chorus as a backup singer, but the levels on her strong voice are kept low, so it sounds like she’s singing in another room.
Cash has also chosen to re-record a few songs he originally set down in the ‘60s, when he was under contract with Sam Perkins’ Sun Record Label. “Streets of Laredo” features Cash’s finest tremolo, and amazing story-telling ability. Listen to this one, and you’ll smell the crackling fire and yearn for the open range. “Give My Love a Rose” was a top 15 hit for Cash back in 1957. The new version is more bittersweet than the original and, like most of his recordings over the past 10 years, stripped down to the man and his guitar. The lyrics tell the story of a dying man, recently released from prison, who won’t be able to return home to visit his wife and child. It could easily serve as the sequel to Cash’s signature folk ballad “Folsom Prison Blues”, where the narrator of the song goes to prison because he “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Recording it again, 45 years later, is a telling statement of where Cash is now in his personal life. He seems to have found the peace he’s been searching for. At the same time, he’s still got his ear to the street. He hasn’t forgotten what it means to struggle through life.
Ultimately, Cash is the type of musician that you’d like to hear take a shot at each of your favorite songs. So it’s hard to fault him for the covers on this album that don’t quite work. The depth of his emotion and the simplicity of his acoustic guitar lend themselves to just about every musical genre. Cash still sounds like same guy you hear at some out of the way bar. The one with a gravel-coated voice raked by a thousand packs of cigarettes, and eyes that have seen too much. He’s so good you wonder why no one’s ever heard of him before, because there’s no one else in the place and he’s playing just for you. Then you remember that it’s Johnny Cash you’re listening to. A man who’s been inducted into the rock and roll, country, and songwriter’s hall of fame. It’s easy to understand why people who claim to dislike country music love Johnny Cash.