I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
The country music/alt country publication No Depression had it right on following the death of Johnny Cash. Their masthead dropped the “No” and read simply: Depression. Such was Johnny Cash’s legacy: he was an inspiration to so many, even during the fallow periods, such as his ill-fated run with Mercury Records in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (In fact, I’ll bet my friend John Francis, who works and records with Johnny’s son John Carter Cash in Nashville, firmly believes he’s the reincarnated spirit of the Man in Black, such is his unending worship of his hero’s oeuvre.) So it’s impossible to approach American IV: The Man Comes Around without considering that legacy, as it was Cash’s final album, released November 5, 2002, less than a year before his death the following September. There is a definite pall over the songs, a distinct mood that death is in the air. It seems almost prescient given the timing (his wife June Carter Cash would pre-decease Johnny on May 15, 2003, following complications from heart valve replacement surgery), and heard following the deaths of June and Johnny, it can also be interpreted as a goodbye letter, to both his wife and family as well as his fans. And maybe Johnny knew it – he and June were older, 71 and 73 respectively when they died, and each had health issues. Johnny was diagnosed in the late 1990s with autonomic neuropathy, which is associated with diabetes, and was hospitalized in 1998 with severe pneumonia. The damage done to his lungs must have been disheartening for him, and his final two albums bore a more somber tone in response (American III: Solitary Man was released in 2000).*
But backing up a bit, the American Recordings sessions, of which he recorded five total (the fifth released posthumously), was a project following the dissolution of his contract with Mercury Records, and undertaken at the behest of American Records honcho Rick Rubin, known throughout music circles for his involvement with rap artists and hard rock bands. The terminally cool L.A. producer, with his long, thin stringy hair and beard and everpresent shades and black outfits, seems at first glance to be a strange fit to boost the recording career of Johnny Cash, but it worked like a charm, exposing to a younger generation the music of one the forefathers of country, folk, and rock music. Rubin hand-picked songs by current artists (as well as a few of Johnny’s own songs and some traditional folk and country tunes) that he felt would be in the singer’s wheelhouse, and with little exception he knocked them out of the park. The arrangements on the records were sparse – American Recordings, the first American album, simply featured Johnny on guitar in Rubin’s living room. This dust-and-all approach to recording fit Cash perfectly, and although he carries it well, the weight of the songs – and I’m speaking specifically about American IV here – comes through in his voice.
The record is a real mix of styles, featuring reinterpretations of songs by more modern musicians (Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode), classic rock vets (Sting, The Eagles, The Beatles), folk and country artists (Simon and Garfunkel, Hank Williams), some traditionals, and a few of Cash’s own songs. And no, not all of them work. Viewed in hindsight, some songs that made the cut take away from the deeply personal feeling that pervades much of the record, either jarring the listener with sentiments that don’t flow or taking the listener out of the Johnny Cash experience with their all-too-recognizable identities as Someone Else’s Songs. And while Cash executes each song with aplomb, some feel like they belong on a different record. Case in point: Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” while a beautiful folk song, is in its genes a 1970s New York hipster tune, a scene so far from the Johnny Cash mythos that it’s distracting. Similarly, Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” while in my opinion an inspired cover with its fluttering blues piano accentuating the main acoustic groove, takes the listener out of the moment, despite Johnny actually eerily injecting religious significance to a song essentially about heroin use. Yes, Johnny really makes it his own, but it wants to be on a different record. “Danny Boy,” surprisingly doesn’t work for me either, even though its association with death and funerals should make it a no-brainer for the Cash canon. But it’s a weird fit for the folk/country crowd, and feels a little off placed between the blazing “Sam Hall” and The Eagles’ “Desperado.” And speaking of “Desperado” – jeesh. It should come as no surprise to many of you that I hate The Eagles, and while the cowboy and Western subject matter makes sense, it turns into a duet with Don Henley halfway through, at which point I promptly threw up in my mouth a little. I can just picture Henley recording those high harmonies, face scrunched upward as his mouth and cheek muscles try to coax that little extra emotion out of his throat, eyes squinted shut in reverence to the song – yeah, I don’t buy it. Henley, as always, sounds constipated, and it’s easy to hit skip when he starts to sing. The Beatles’ “In My Life” never was much more than a blip on my radar as their catalog features inifinitely better offerings, and it remains a blip here.
But the highlights – oh the highlights. Sting’s “I Hung My Head” is perfect material for Johnny Cash, and I’m heretofore unfamiliar with it, so it may as well be a Cash original. The narrator is a young man who borrows his brother’s gun and accidentally kills a rider on the plains, widowing the man’s wife, with whom he has young children. He runs in fear, finally gives himself up, and accepts the consequences, showing deep remorse and regret the whole time, particularly in the heartbreaking titular line which Johnny delivers as heavily as you can imagine. Perhaps unsurprisingly there are also not one, but two songs in which Johnny, as the narrator, comes across dying men, his own “Give My Love to Rose” and the traditional ballad “The Streets of Laredo,” and each tune is infused with a deep gravitas.
Perhaps Cash foresaw the imminent death of his wife and the parting and distance he would endure for the last brief bit of his life, if his cover of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a duet with Nick Cave (a natural pairing), is any indication. He also finds solace in the 1939 Hughie Charles and Ross Parker tune “We’ll Meet Again,” a song popular with soldiers going off to fight in World War II, here turned into a bittersweet “see you later” to his loved ones. He’s joined in the final chorus by a roomful of people, and it comes across like they’re his closest family and friends at his deathbed celebrating his life: “We’ll meet again / don’t know where, don’t know when / but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.” But maybe surprisingly it’s his take on Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” that is the most affecting song here, and it comes across like the deepest apology to his loved ones at the end of a long life, yet it’s clear that through his interpretation of Reznor’s words that Cash is accepting that the end is near and he really wants to set things right. It’s beautiful and haunting – the pairing shouldn’t work, but Johnny makes the most of it. In fact, it was hard to keep my emotions in check while listening, thinking of Johnny reciting these lines to June at the end of their lives: “What have I become, my sweetest friend? / Everyone I know goes away in the end. / And you could have it all / my empire of dirt. / I will let you down, / I will make you hurt.” He’s preparing them both for death, preparing us all for it really. And one partner letting the other one down and making him or her hurt is inevitable – death finds us all, and we’re rarely fortunate enough to pass at the same time as those we love most. It’s a fitting cap on Johnny’s career and life, and a masterstroke of inspiration by Rick Rubin for the suggestion of recording it.
But we can’t end on a downer, and “When the Man Comes Around” is one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs of all time. It’s an uptempo song detailing the apocalypse – and given his religious background, Johnny steeps this number in great biblical imagery, revisiting and reciting parts of the book of Revelation, as well as other scriptural references and tones: “The whirlwind is in the thorn tree. / The virgins are all trimming their wicks. / The whirlwind is in the thorn tree. / It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” It’s all fire and brimstone, and dire warnings of the return of Christ and the onset of the end of days. I can totally picture Nick Cave, already an avid Cash disciple, taking this one on himself (and of course, Cave actually has an album called Kicking Against the Pricks). But the best part was the use of the song over the credits of Zack Snyder’s awesome remake of Dawn of the Dead, an absolutely inspired choice as humanity is ravaged in montage by the living dead.
Johnny Cash is truly missed by his fans. But he had a long, eventful life, and this document is a fitting capstone to an amazing career.
RIYL: Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Nick Cave