Johnny Cash: American Recordings IV “The Man Comes Around” – a review
Growing up, I used to have innocent little rows with my father about music. The setting would usually be as follows: I would be listening over and over to some piece of music that I’d found at the public library, say, “Solveig’s song” by Grieg or Chopin’s waltz in A-minor, and then my father would get tired of this monomania on my part and say “Geez, Marie, don’t you think that piece is a little contrived?”, and then I’d throw a hissy-fit and yell at him, stating that unlike somebody I wasn’t old and had lived for, like, a million years, and thus pieces of music that may be contrived to him had yet to become so to me.
Well, I still think I had a point, actually. Just because you’re not the first person ever to get excited about a piece of music, it doesn’t make your excitement any less valid. Which is why I will now be reviewing an album that has a few years on its back. You see, yesterday I went to see my old friend, the Public Library, and brought home Johnny Cash’s American Recordings IV, the fourth of the legendary albums he did for Lost Highway Records, and the last Johnny Cash-album to be released while John was still alive.
And what a great album it is! As my little anecdote above will show, I’m really more of a classical-music kind of girl than anything else, and my I don’t know as much about rock music as I’d like to, but surely Cash’s American Recordings must be some of the best rock albums of the past few decades? Or is it just my strong-lived Johnny Cash fandom talking?
It’s great in any case. The album is opened very effectively with an original Johnny Cash composition “When the man comes around”, an eerie apocalyptic tale, obviously inspired by St. John’s revelation. Cash’s innovation as a musician is startling in this song; a steady country-like beat dominates the stanzas, but Cash’s baritone’s thunders over the bars more like a preacher’s or prophet’s ominous voice than a harmless lonesome cowboy’s, and the stanzas explode into a pompous chorus with an irregularity that keeps the listener constantly on his toes. A remarkable musical presentation of the idea of Godly splendour and sovereignity.
This explosion turns into implosion in the album’s next track, namely the introvert testimony “Hurt”, a brilliant cover version of a Nine Inch Nails number. Cash’s piano chords are hammering away in this song and threatening to overpower his raw and tortured-ringing voice, and underlining the theme of self-destruction found in the lyrics. If you haven’t seen Cash’s video for this song yet, you definitely should. It serves as a sorrowful depiction of the dark sides of Cash’s life, and Cash’s prematurely aged and expressionable face tells a story in itself. This is a cover number at its best.
As is “Personal Jesus”, the sixth song on the album. There is something so amazing about Cash doing a cover version of a Depeche Mode song. Indeed I cannot imagine anyone being more different from metrosexual, synthesizing Depeche Mode than the Southern drawling Cash, with his sideburns, and guitar strings. And yet, “Personal Jesus” becomes more than a musical freak show, a strange hybrid of genre and male role models; it works really well in Cash’s interpretation. With the musical arrangement of a 50’s rock band (piano and bass), Depeche Mode’s cynical urban sound is lost, but it is replaced by a truly interesting rawness and authenticity in this post-modern, auto-religious hymn, and Cash makes great use, once again, of his booming baritone.
Sadly, not all the album’s cover versions are equally successful. I think I just have to acknowledge the fact that, despite my infinite love for the Man in Black, he and I didn’t really have the same taste in a few things. For instance, what is up with “Give my love to Rose”?? Cash has recorded this song numerous times, and I seriously cannot find any redeeming qualities about it. The tune is predictable, the rhythm is dull, and the lyrics are disgustingly sappy, if you ask me. And I never was much of a fan of John Lennon’s trivial little piece of nostalgia “In my life”, which is also among the album’s cover numbers, and Cash doesn’t seem to be able to bring life into neither this song, nor the Simon and Garfunkel song “Bridge over Troubled Water”.
No, I like Johnny Cash a lot better when he’s exploring the lone rider’s and the desperado’s solitary path, and luckily there’s plenty of that on the album, too. Cash does a amazing duet with Nick Cave on the folk song “I’m so lonesome I could cry” (and the lyrics are lovely! “Did you ever see a robin cry/when the leaves begin to die?/It means he’s lost his will to live/I’m so lonesome I could cry”). Cave’s and Cash’s voices work well together, almost forming a kind of vocal symbiosis at times, and there is something so right about these two artists being united. Why wasn’t this partnership taken further? I would have loved to have had Cash sing along on “Murder Ballads”! Oh, well. Spilled milk and all that.
Cash’s cover version of “Desperado” is equally successful, and “Streets of Laredo” is one of the prettiest country tunes I’ve heard – almost like a Bellman song! – and, while thematically a lot like “Give my love to Rose”, a lot less sappy and with a genuinely beautiful imagery: “Then beat the drum slowly, play the Fife lowly./Play the dead march as you carry me along./Take me to the green valley, lay the sod o’er me”.
The album’s best desperado-themed song is probably the extremely aggressive, yet absolutely delightful “Sam Hall”! Sam Hall is closely related to earlier Cash characters such as the fatefully sniffin’ Willy Lee of “Cocaine Blues” and the Boy Named Sue, and he is a wonderfully sardonic acquaintance: “My name it is Sam Hall/and I hate you one and all!” Each stanza ends with the angry outburst “Damn your [/his] eyes!” which doesn’t rhyme with anything (and that’s quite an accomplishment, considering how many “lies” and “dice” and “lice” there are going around in the wild west!) – it’s the kind of unadjusted and unreasonable rage you find in a toddler stomping his foot on the floor, worked into music.
But my personal favourite on this album, and the biggest surprise, was Cash’s interpretation of the 50s ballad “The first time ever I saw your face”. More than being a song for describing the love for a specific person, I would say that the song depicts the power of love, or, rather the universal power that is love. There are no ruby lips or rosy cheeks in this song or any other such trivialities, it’s bigger than that; the imagery tells us of “the moon and the stars” and “the earth” and “the end of time”, and Cash does great justice to this universality. He’s restricted the pace to a pensive lento, and his – say it with me now – booming baritone sounds so vulnerable and with such an expression of awe and wonder. I almost cried the first time I heard it, and for the first time in my life I almost dreamt of having a big, gross, over-the-top wedding, just so that song could be sung at the reception. And that says a lot. A song of pure beauty, that’s what it is, and probably the most beautiful rock ballad I have ever heard.
All in all, American Recordings IV “When the man comes around” is a remarkable Johnny Cash-album. I’ve heard it described as the most uneven of the American Recordings, and I can see how one might call it that, but the good tracks on this albums are so incredibly good that it makes it all worth it, it’s like you almost need it when a less inspired track like “In my life” comes along, just to keep your feet on the ground.
I’ve just picked up American Recordings III “Solitary Man” at the library today – can’t wait to get started with it! I’m sure my neighbours, who are probably getting a little tired of both “Personal Jesus” and my repeat-button, will appreciate it, too…