It’s hard to believe this voice comes from the same genetics that produced the rough-hewn vocals of country legend Johnny Cash. It’s equally hard to believe that Rosanne Cash, who has lived a tumultuous life all her own, has produced a record that is so clear and confident in being, well, ordinary.
Those involved in the mainstream country music business will undoubtedly call this record a triumph; a sterling comeback from one of the genres most beloved daughters. And there is much to be admired in how Cash has rallied from her involuntary hiatus from music, caused by a polyp that developed on her vocal chords after a pregnancy in 1998. But the fact of the matter is that as gifted as a writer as Cash is (evidenced by the critically acclaimed release of a collection of short stories Bodies of Water in 1996), her “comeback” record Rules of Travel is the antithesis to everything the Cash name — both the one her father established, and the one she forged herself early in her career stands for.
Once considered the rebel child of country music, Cash eventually carved a niche for herself in the late ’80s with a string of minor country and popular radio hits. But even then, the country music establishment rolled its eyes. It seemed Cash was more comfortable filling the gaps between alt-country and the name-brand genre than getting on with a proper country career — they wanted more fluff, less guff. Even now, as those with a subscription to No Depression found out in March, Cash still is considered on the outskirts of alt-country.
So maybe it’s that history that makes the contradictions of Rules of Travel feel like such a dramatic departure. It’s a cleaner, leaner record with four Cash originals, four songs co-written with producer John Leventhal, and contributions from Craig Northey, Jakob Dylan, Joe Henry, and Marc Cohn. And while the inclusion of folks like Henry and Dylan alongside guests performances by the Man in Black and Steve Earle would seem to indicate a return to those awkward but rewarding fence-sitting roots, the result is an antiseptic recording that conjures up names like pop twangsters Twain and Hill.
It may be harsh to compare Cash with artists of such obvious lesser gifts, but there’s plenty of blame to go around on this record. From Cash’s bipolar lyrics (at times brilliant, at others perfunctory) with recycled zingers like “I don’t know if God was ever a man / But if she was, I think I understand”, to Leventhal’s lifeless and emotionally stripped production, this is as commercial as country gets. Even the elder Cash and “hardcore troubadour” Earle come of sounding muted and helpless here. It would be easy and misguided to say that perhaps the calm ripples of Cash’s personal life haven’t boded well for her creative one, but there are nuggets of gold in Rules, if you’re willing to look for them. Often the thin line that separates quality from mediocrity for artists like Cash is defined by the choices they make and this record is full of all the wrong ones.
The first two lines from the leadoff track, “Beautiful Pain”, are perhaps more prophetic than intended: “Do you want to be honest, or do you want to win / You could have it all, if you could gracefully give in”. And Cash is full of grace. If she is selling out to with Rules, she’s doing so serenely and beautifully. While musically sterile, both “Beautiful Pain” and the following “44 Stories” are lyrically ambitious as commercial music goes and show off the short story writer within. In the hands of someone more confident in what Cash can do, these songs could be raw and heartbreaking — ala Lucinda Williams. Instead, Leventhal infuses Sheryl Crow (literally) and comes up with something that sounds shamefully shallow.
Again, the nuggets are there, but “I’ll Change for You” and “September When It Comes” are just painful. Described as obsessively erotic by a grasping record label, “I’ll Change for You” underutilizes Earle in a sort of “call and answer” tune with Earle mumbling short bursts like “I’ll give it my best” to Cash’s “I’ll change for you”. The tip-off, though, here that everything might not be right comes in the form of the credit to Tony Kadlek on the fugelhorn. The fugelhorn for Christ’s sake?
But as useless as Earle sounds in “I’ll Change for You”, Johnny Cash is a foreigner in the otherwise haunting morality play “September When It Comes”. What seems like a meditation on an unresolved past becomes a novelty song when Cash enters, out of place and out of time. By incorporating two vocalists, the song loses its center and its meaning.
And that’s the problem on whole with Rules of Travel. Cash is clearly an accomplished songwriter. Her voice certainly can’t carry her career, it couldn’t before her health problems. Yet, each song is, in fact, a short story and the imagery in tracks like “Rules of Travel” and the afore-mentioned “September When It Comes” is vivid. But you can’t escape the fact that these songs are produced to keep you out. While there’s something of substance beneath the sheen and gloss, getting there takes way too much effort.