Johnny Cash: American IV: The Man Comes Around

Ari Levenfeld

Johnny Cash

American IV: the Man Comes Around

Label: Lost Highway
US Release Date: 2002-11-05
UK Release Date: 2002-11-04

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Melkbelly splices insanely supercharged punk energy with noise-band drums and super catchy pop melodies. It's a bewildering, intoxicating sound which has caught the attention of underground Chicago audiences. We ask singer Miranda Winters how it works.

"I've always, I guess, struggled to decide what kind of music I wanted to play, something sort of abrasive and loud or something sort of pop and folky. I would bounce back and forth between the two," says Miranda Winters, the dynamic singer who careens between pretty girl pop croons and banshee wails in the course of, really, almost any song in the Melkbelly catalog. "When we first started Melkbelly, the goal was to figure out how to make them work together, but I don't know that we actually knew that it would work when we started."

Keep reading... Show less

Often screwball comedies feature sharp contrasts between social classes, with not-so-subtle commentaries on the idle rich, and that's here in triplicate.

The Philadelphia Story is one of those legendary Hollywood films and not just because it stars Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart—three iconic actors from Hollywood's Golden Age. Partly that's because the stories behind its making are as fascinating as the film itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Is Greta Van Fleet the second coming of Led Zeppelin?

My first exposure to Greta Van Fleet was through the last 30 seconds of "Highway Tune". I've listened to Led Zeppelin since the early 1990s, but I couldn't place the song. My initial thought was that it's a lost track I missed off the recently expanded remasters. When the song finished and the DJ said it was Greta Van Fleet, I wondered who they are. They are three brothers and a friend from Frankenmuth, Michigan. Joshua Kiszka supplies lead vocals, Jacob Kiszka provides lead guitar, Samuel Kiszka plays bass and keyboard, and Daniel Wagner pounds the drums. The first two are 21 and the other two are 18.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.