While living in Syracuse, NY in 1976 I made an attempt to get a stint as a DJ at the university radio station. I didn’t get too far. Everything was going pretty well until the music director, a rather holier than though sort, asked me to write up a sample playlist of what I would like to play on a two hour show, should I be given the opportunity to try out. I dutifully put together a list of new, old and classic songs that I thought would make a great show. He took one look at it and said to me incredibly: “You would actually play Johnny Cash on this radio station?” I was listening a lot to Cash’s 1974 release John R. Cash and I think I had included either “Cocaine Carolina” or “My Old Kentucky Home” from that album. Things went downhill from there and I never got a chance to spin any records for the kids at Syracuse University. You have to remember this was 1976 and real country music was still regarded as hillbilly hogwash by many college students. How ironic that almost twenty years later, with the release of American Recordings, Cash would be celebrated as a musical godfather and hero at many college campuses across the land.
The Man Comes around was the last album of “new” material that Cash released while he was alive (American V was released several years after his death). It continued his fruitful and productive collaboration with Rick Rubin and while it didn’t break any new ground (sticking mainly to the same style they had mined so well on the first three albums of the “American” series) it was different in one way. Cash’s voice was clearly deteriorating. Well, while deteriorating is technically the correct word to describe the process, it’s not really the right one. There’s a certain amount of negativity associated with the word “deteriorating” and the truth of the matter is that while Cash’s voice indisputably lacks the strength and vigor it once had, it’s still an amazing instrument. The key here is the material. When Cash’s ragged, frayed, almost worn out voice connects with the right kind of song it’s almost transcendent. All of the years, all of the history, all of the life, all of the good times and bad times, all of the joy and desperation, all of the hard worn knowledge and tears bleed through that voice into each word. And that happens more times on this album than we have any right to expect. However, for every mini-masterpiece there is a misfire that simply doesn’t work. It all comes down to the song.
The album kicks off on an outstandingly strong note with three back to back songs that work so well together it’s downright magical. First comes the title song, a Cash original, and one of the best songs he ever wrote. The mystical lyrics, the driving beat, the strong melody with a great, classic hook all suit Cash’s voice perfectly. It’s an amazing performance, one of my very favorites of his later years. It’s followed by what is probably the most well known song from this period of his career, Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.” Again, it’s absolutely astonishing how well Cash inhabits this song and how well the production and the lyrics fit his voice. The accompanying video helped this song reach an audience that ten or twenty years earlier would have scoffed at the idea of Johnny Cash being relevant. Then it’s back to the roots with an acoustic reworking of his classic song from his early Sun Records days, “Give My Love To Rose.” And once again, it’s exactly the kind of song that actually benefits from the raw state of Cash’s voice at this point in time.
But, unfortunately, the magic doesn’t last. A pointless reading of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” follows that just makes no sense. To start with this is one of those songs that probably no one should ever attempt to cover. The original is such a masterpiece, such a one of a kind piece of music, that to bring anything new, distinct and original to it seems almost impossible. Perhaps the song had some sentimental value to Cash. I can’t even begin to guess why they chose to include this, but it’s simply not very good. And that’s the pattern we find throughout this album. Songs like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” The Beatles classic “In My Life,” the Eagles masterpiece “Desperado” and the old war horse “Danny Boy,” songs that border dangerously close to sentimental, out of place souvenirs, sit right alongside magnificent, almost transcendent songs like “The Man Comes Around,” “Hurt” and “I Hung My Head.” It’s really as if we have two separate albums here, one a near masterpiece and one that could be described as Cash’s Self Portrait (the universally panned Dylan album from 1970).
Sting’s “I Hung My Head” is another classic reading from Cash where he quite simply just “owns” the song. Another example of exactly the right kind of material that perfectly suits his voice. Cash has always been one of the best storytellers popular music has ever seen and here he turns Sting’s lyrics into a glorious, almost semi-religious sepia-toned virtual movie that continues to play inside your head whether you want it to or not. The rest of the album never quite lives up to the true gems I’ve described above, but the songs and the performances are all solid and strong. “Sam Hall” gives us a quick look into the trademark fire and passion that Cash once threw into his singing with little or no effort whatsoever. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” which looks so good on paper (and it’s even a duet with Nick Cave), never quite comes together for some reason. “Personal Jesus,” “Streets Of Laredo” and “We’ll Meet Again” round out the collection.
I saw Cash perform live at a tribute concert in New York in 1999, a couple of years before this album was released. We had great seats (third row) and I was astonished at how bad he looked up close. I really thought he couldn’t be more than a few months away from death. He managed to hang on a few more years and I’m glad he did. He left an incredible legacy of music. American IV: The Man Comes Around is certainly nowhere near the top of his best work, but it’s an admirable effort from a man who never quit, who never gave up, who was writing and recording to the very end. And the songs that do work on this album are first rate, they’ll find a home in my iTunes Johnny Cash playlist.
About “Bridge over troubled water”: I agree with you, and I thought exacltly the same yesterday morning while listening to Buck Owens cover of this song that predated Johnny’s one.
Another song doesn’t suffer cover: “A whiter shade of pale”. But the Everly Brothers did it! Hard to listen to…