The man hums a round
That deep, bleak and passionate voice is why his series of four “American Recordings” albums – comprising folk and country standards, Cash’s own compositions new and old, and a wildly diverse batch of cover songs – have been such an artistic success late in the legendary singer’s career.
On all of his recordings – from “At Folsom Prison” to “Ballads of the True West” – Cash has often sung more songs written by others than he has his own heartfelt and clever compositions. He’s also famous for singing other people’s tunes –he neither wrote “Ring of Fire” nor a few others of his most famous songs: “A Boy Named Sue” was written by Shel Silverstein and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was written by Kris Kristofferson.
He did write “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.”
But one of Cash’s greatest gifts is his ability to interpret American music, a skill that may only be paralleled by his pal Willie Nelson, or maybe Jimi Hendrix – who outdid Bob Dylan on “All Along the Watchtower” and thousands of blues singers on the murder-ballad “Hey Joe.”
Cash also has recorded more definitive versions of American folk and country standards than any singers this side of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
On the “American Recordings” discs, he has continued to lay down the law on the standards, but he also has stormed into the realm of modern pop music.
On the four albums, he has re-invented chart toppers more-famously done by the likes of Tom Petty and Neil Diamond. But he also has mined the vaults and come up with stirring tunes from Will Oldham of Bonny Prince Billie, Beck, Danzig and Soundgarden.
The latest in the series, “The Man Comes Around,” released in November, is like the other three – magnificent, bizarre, goofy and irritating.
The album’s opening song, “The Man Comes Around,” not only shows that Cash can still put the fear of God into a melody, but that he’s still a pretty sharp and poetic songwriter.
The song, much of which is lifted from “Revelations,” is a stark and staggering plunge toward judgement day that fits right themes Cash has been exploring since he broke onto the country music scene in the ’50s – the motivation to do wrong, the struggle for faith, and the ecstasy and agony of redemption. A lot of the redeemed cowboys and evil-doers in Cash’s song do their atoning on the gallows.
Only two more of Cash’s own composition’s appear on the album –“Tear Stained Letter” and “Give My Love Rose.”
The latter song – the last words of a dying ex-convict who didn’t have time to reunite with his wife and children –has appeared on many of Cash’s albums, including the stellar “At Folsom Prison.”
While previous versions have been contrite tear-jerkers, Cash’s 21st Century rendition is starker and angrier – a wrenching self-indictment of blown opportunities. This re-recording, furthermore, stands up to the older versions.
For covers, Cash has again roamed the musical scale. The second song on the album, “Hurt,” is borrowed from Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. This tantrum of a tune, when crooned by Cash, shows the power that even rather ordinary lyrics can have when the words are simply enunciated rather than growled or buried in a hailstorm of squealing instruments.
The strangest two songs on the album may be the duets of two of pop’s most enduring songs – “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” with Fiona Apple and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” with the angst-king Nick Cave.
The cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” is certainly unique, but even Johnny Cash can’t reach the lofty, gut-tingling heights Art Garfunkel reached on the original version.
As for the latter song, many have done it better than Cash and Cave –the man who wrote it, for instance – but Hank Williams is hard to out-sing. The Cowboy Junkies, on their outstanding “Trinity Sessions,” also do a better rendition of the classic than the one included on “The Man Comes Around.”
The album also has a crestfallen version of the Eagles’ “Desperado,” a desolate run through the Beatles’ “In My Life,” a plodding rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and a downright annoying attempt at Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” –which, in Cash’s defense, is a pretty annoying song to begin with.
The album hits its climax when Cash returns to the old standards. He nails himself to the pinnacle of unrepentance in the gallows song, “Sam Hall,” and does as weepy a version of “O, Danny Boy” as has been sung at many an Irish wake.
Where Cash really outdoes himself in on the cowboy classic, “Streets of Laredo,” which he previously records on his “Ballads of the True West” album. All that really needs to be said about this version is that it’s about the best ever done of this often sung song.
Unfortunately, “The Man Comes Around,” is probably the weakest of the series, all of which are worth owning. Listeners, however, should not be mislead by the title of the four records – “American Recordings” – and expect Cash has catalogued the most important pop, folk and rock ‘n’ roll songs for posterity.
If that was his goal, there’d be a Neil Young song in there somewhere; there’d also be compositions by Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, the Velvet Underground, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Parliament, the Talking Heads, the Clash, Prince, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and a handful of other musical giants.
He’s already done the Beatles and U2 – in fact his version of the latter group’s “One” may be the highlight of all four albums.
While perhaps not important, this collection is wonderful for two reasons.
First, Cash is 70-years-old and he’s not clinging to his youth –he’s gained wisdom from **not** dying before he got old. His voice is stark and wary of death. Like Bob Dylan has done on his last two terrific, truculent albums, Cash has staked out a dignified and scary place for the elders of music by not trying to rewrite the songs he wrote when he was a kid.
And second, Cash is doing what hundreds of thousands of far-less accomplished musicians have been doing in their garages and living rooms since Chuck Berry fired off the lick to “Johnny B. Goode” –Cash has picked up his guitar and taught himself to sing a batch of songs he just felt like singing.
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.