American IV: The Man Comes Around
hile American III: Solitary Man suggested that illness hadn’t phased him, Johnny Cash’s latest effort, The Man Comes Around , appears to be the artist’s final statement. This is not to say that John R. has run out of steam, but that so many of the album’s songs deal with death and closure.
The opening number, “The Man Comes Around”, is easily the best original found on any of the American albums. Beginning the song with a quote from the Book of Revelation, Johnny launches into a lively, powerful Judgment Day tale. Johnny’s booming voice is aided, in the shuffle-like rhythm of the verses, by Smokey Hormel and Randy Scruggs (son of Earl), and in the chorus by Benmont Tench’s thunderous piano. All the album’s players are fantastic from the members of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers found also on Unchained and Solitary Man to Marty Stuart, Billy Preston, John Frusciante and members of Beck’s band, Hormel and Joey Waronker. Unfortunately, Johnny’s choice of guest singers is not as successful. Fiona Apple’s pseudo-sultry drone ruins John R’s interpretation of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” While it’s not the most imaginative selection, Johnny’s voice is well suited the song, though everything goes to pot when Apple pushes her way into the middle of the second verse. “Desperado” sounds great until Don Henley pipes in to remind the listener what was wrong with the original. The already lifeless “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” isn’t helped by Nick Cave.
The interpretations have generally been the most interesting element of the American albums. It’s almost as though Johnny were responding to Dave Van Ronk’s 1994 complaint that “except for writers whose material is C & W compatible, it is next to impossible to get someone, anyone, to sing a song he or she didn't personally compose” anymore. John revealed a particular genius for choosing songs that sound better in his hands. He possess something the original songwriters did not, “I See A Darkness” and “The Mercy Seat” were more comfortable with Johnny, because he is genuinely dark, while Will Oldham and Nick Cave are not. “Rowboat” and “Hidden Shame” (not featured on any of the American albums, but recorded around the same time) work because Johnny is truly country, while Beck and Elvis Costello are not. When Johnny wasn’t topping songs, he matched the originals because he captured the true spirit of a composition while finding something new. However, the covers found on American IV aren’t nearly as successful. Cash’s versions of “Danny Boy”, “In My Life” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” are just unnecessary—they add nothing to previous versions. Johnny does manage to nail a few songs. “Personal Jesus” is superb. Depeche Mode’s once synth-y and cold 1989 hit single is made bluesy and organic. The song is far more powerful coming from a devout believer. The album’s strangest moment comes with John R’s take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”. Johnny managed grunge more successfully, performing Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” on Unchained. It’s disconcerting to hear Trent Reznor’s ninth grade suicide letterism come from the pragmatic Cash. The greatest interpretive achievement comes, however, on the final track. His “We’ll Meet Again” is bittersweet. While it is one of the best versions of a song performed by hundreds, it is seemingly the last song on Johnny Cash’s last album. Coupled with the title track, the album offers a statement to his fans, that Johnny Cash is genuinely unafraid of death. Though reassuring (but not unexpected), the reality of his death will be harder to fathom than any recent or imminent celebrity. While it may sound trite, he is truly at the heart of American music.
The inferior quality of the covers belies the excellence of American IV’s originals. The aforementioned title track shines the brightest, but the others are superb as well. “Give My Love To Rose” meets the standard set by previous Cash ballads and works nicely among the more uptempo numbers. “Sam Hall” is a satisfying addition to the cannon of Cash outlaw songs. “Tear Stained Letter” highlights Johnny’s ability to rise above cliché while adhering to traditional country themes.
However uneven, American IV: Solitary Man proves to be one of the most interesting albums of the year, offering further insight into one of America’s greatest performers.
Reviewed by: Colin Beckett
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01