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Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around
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(This review was written a few months before Cash's September 2003 death.)
Several years ago in PRISM Magazine I asserted that Johnny Cash’s career--and especially his revitalized (and newly hip) work over the past decade--offered “as perfect a confession of faith in a broken world as I can imagine” and was a “clinic in genuine Christianity.”
Repeated listenings, however, to The Man Comes Around, Cash’s fourth disc produced by rap and metal impresario Rick Rubin for the American label, have forced me to revise that opinion. I now believe that Cash’s work and integrity are beyond imagining. This disc is, quite simply, the best record--and the most devastating--I have heard in years.
Let’s start with the basics. The newest release from ‘the man in black’ is an extended meditation on death. Cash’s ill-health has been well documented over the past decade, and as I write this review (it’s early April) he has just been released from the hospital after another close call with pneumonia. The 71 year-old, once referred to by Bob Dylan as a “mountain of a man,” now is clearly stooped under the cumulative weight of his years, and the 15 songs on The Man Comes Around come back, again and again, to his ever-present fragility, from the record’s opening—a reading from the Book of the Apocalypse—to the somewhat cheeky take on “We’ll Meet Again” that closes the disc. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of another record, of any genre, that looks so unflinchingly—and intimately—at the artist’s mortality. While Cash insists he wants to keep making records (an old-fashioned “gospel” record is next, according to his publicists), it is clear that this is a kind of musical last will and testament—or at least testimony—and was the record he needed to make while he still could, and that passion manifests itself at every corner of this disc in an unblinking urgency almost never seen in popular music.
But as moribund as this disc is, it is anything but morbid. Instead, whether singing autobiographically or burrowing deep into classic metaphorical cowboy narratives of life, love, longing and loss, Cash faces his mortality with a matter-of-factness that allows him to cut through both sentimentality and bleak fearfulness and find deep stores of grace at every turn. And not simply in the “sweet bye and bye” either, but right in the process of living and dying and lamenting and celebrating and mourning all that has gone before and will come. Perhaps that is the secret of why this disc is so desperately encouraging—it is unwavering in its wholeness, in its conviction that nothing in or of life, and what comes after life, is outside of the grasp, and tender mercy, of God.
Musically, The Man Comes Around strikes a balance between the acoustic starkness of American Recordings (1995) and the more band-driven sounds of Unchained (1997). Like on his thoughtful, if uneven, Solitary Man (2000), rather than making the songs fit the chosen format, producer Rick Rubin lets the songs themselves demand their own production. While most tunes are anchored by the train-like bum-tada-bum-tada-bum acoustic guitar rhythms that have become a Cash trademark, there is more musical complexity—even adventurousness—here than on any Cash disc in recent memory. For example, on his stirring and stark take on “Danny Boy” Cash is backed by a lone, simple and sustained organ chords—the kind of whirring, cheap, tremolo-heavy, pushed-through-a-Leslie-speaker sound you’d hear in a conservative old country church backing “Sister Mabel” as she sang that Sunday’s “special offertory number.” In lesser hands this kind of production choice might fall into the realm of just plain corny, but against Cash’s wavering vocals it is oddly perfect.
And Cash’s baritone does waiver. The ravages of time, hard living and disease have taken much of the power from his legendary voice—the deep notes no longer resonate with his distinctive, nearly seismic rumble. But where the younger Cash might have song through a lyric, he now is forced to cling to every syllable for dear life, like it might be his last, singing through a frailty that gives the song an air of dynamic, painstakingly beautiful immediacy. It’s yet another example of a great artist—and theologian—at work, as Cash has taken his weakness and transformed it into his strength. Indeed, while his voice may be less than it was, his singing has never been better.
The best example of this is found in his re-recording of “Give My Love To Rose,” a song he originally tracked in the early 60s. The original is a good, though not essential, story-song of a dying cowboy who longs to tell his wife of his love one last time, and exhibits the kind of rough-hewn sentimentality that Cash made his own in those hard-living, grace-seeking days of his early career. The new version, however, is played more quietly, less sentimentally, and practically reeks of desperation. When Cash sings the chorus, you can sense that what was once a quaint formula song is now an urgent proposition.
Indeed, the love of his life, June Carter Cash, looms large over this record, suggestive of one of this century’s great love stories. His cover of Lennon/McCartney’s “In My Life” invites a creaky tenderness to the song in a way that it’s hard to imagine the Beatles dreamt possible. Cash’s take on Roberta Flack’s classic “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” simmers with a passion that is at once undeniable and nearly reverent. While Flack’s version is perfectly lovely, the frail simplicity of Cash’s rugged, nearly broken delivery finds greater depths in the song, conjuring at once both the fire and immediacy of lovemaking and the immense satisfaction that comes from a lifetime of afterglow and shared struggle.
So too his versions of the Eagles’ “Deperado” and the Simon and Garfunkel classic “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Both songs—so perfect in their original renditions I assumed they simply should not be covered—find new life under Cash’s tutelage without once veering into the saccharine. With Don Henley (“Desperado”) and Fiona Apple (“Bridge”) offering glancing, grace-note harmony vocals, Cash finds something painful and gritty and glorious in their now nearly ubiquitous lyrics, and turns both songs into meditations on the cost, as well as the depths, of committed love. After nearly 40 years of courtship and marriage, Cash’s shoulders are bowed a bit from the weight of loving, and listening makes you yearn for that kind of commitment in your own love life—and grateful for the moments of it you might have enjoyed.
Most remarkable for an album largely made of covers of other people’s songs is how thoroughly Cash owns these songs—so convincing are his versions that you forget that they aren’t his alone. Cash’s take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”—the album’s single and breathtaking video (which is available as a bonus DVD in some packaging)—for example, is so perfect that I had to work hard to remember the (quite good) original altogether. I’m not alone, either—NIN’s Trent Reznor has recently stated that he won’t play the song again, because it now “belongs to Johnny.”
Hank Williams’ much-recorded “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” finds new life under Cash’s hand as a duet with Nick Cave, in large measure because their delivery is actually suggestive of the kind of anguish that only years of regret can bring. While a younger man might sing this song well, only an old man who has known the heights and depths of life and love could find this much in it. And even the cold ironicism of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” finds new life, with Cash reinventing the song as a compelling, hard-edged and unshakable statement of his own deep convictions—as well as an exhortation to the listener to “reach out and touch faith.”
And therein is the secret to this record. There is a real, unblinking, un-romanticized, unerring and decidedly worldly faith that anchors this collection and gives its focus on death a genuine urgency. Unlike most of country music (and its Gaither-ish country gospel offspring), whose attention to death smacks of that soft-focused, Vaseline-on-the-lens kind of cross-stitched, puke-inducing, can’t-wait-to-get-outa-here “sweet bye and bye” cackle, Cash doesn’t pine for the great hereafter, but rather (and clearly) loves his life for all its worth (and even clings to it), while keeping a firm and full perspective on the fact that he can rest assured in the what’s-to-come. The clear inevitability of his death (our death) reminds him to drink deeply from the well of life while he can, while his confidence in his Savior allows him to do so without fear.
Perhaps this all rings too close to home for a guy who, in the last couple of years, has had a couple of his own brushes with that chess-playing guy from those Bergman films. Maybe, but regardless, this record got under my skin and I’m better for it. It is truly, honestly and deeply inspiring. Please go buy it.