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American IV: The Man Comes Around
Artist: Johnny Cash
Label: Universal 
Length: 15 tracks

At the very center of 20th century music, and beyond, there stands a Man in Black, walking the line: A stallion in the old Sun stable, with Elvis, Carl, Jerry Lee and the rockabilly cats. Grafted in by matrimony to The Carter Family. Onetime Waylon roommate, Orbison neighbor and Dylan pal. Inspiration for convict Merle Haggard to take up music. Father to Rosanne Cash; former father-in-law to Crowell, Stuart and Lowe. TV host to everyone from Pete Seeger to the Who. Discoverer of the Statler Brothers and Kris Kristofferson (who in turn discovered John Prine); employer of the Statlers, Carl Perkins and assorted Carters. Fellow Highwayman with Kris, Waylon and
Willie Nelson. A necessary human element in U2’s “Zooropa.” Colleague of hip-hop producer Rick Rubin. Interpreter of Silversten and Springsteen, Soundgarden and Sting. As much as Sinatra, as Dylan or Elvis or Satchmo or other reasonable claimant to the title, Johnny Cash could easily be called the Artist of the Century. Maybe two.

But as notable as is Cash’s place in cultural history, more important is how his life has mirrored the triumphs and struggles we all face -- albeit in a very large, very public, very documented matter. His jousts nigh unto death with the dark powers of destruction, self- and otherwise, battles with demons in any sense of the word -- and his emergence into the light of faith, of love and commitment and faithfulness. We’ve seen him wreck a family, and make one work. We’ve seen him identify with other strugglers: prisoners, Indians, jilted lovers, disaffected youth, even boys named Sue. These days his battles are against the ravages of age and infirmity, the ones we all face should the Lord allow. But he continues, through his life and his odd but engaging collections of songs, to show us the state of humanity, a people grappling with their responsibilities to one another and their sundered but, for some, repaired connection with God.

And so here we have another album by the walking contradiction (Kristofferson’s words), the fourth in Cash’s series of Rubin-produced albums, released at the tail end of a Cash-filled year (new retrospectives, a slew of reissues, a couple books, at least three tributes). As with the others, “American IV: The Man Comes Around” contains a handful of Cash originals (one new), some arrangements of standards and Cash classics and a slew of covers from not only left field, but center, right, over the fence and back in the dugout.  In fact, before spinning the disc, I was skeptical about the track list; it seemed more gimmicky and uneven than ever. Cash singing Depeche Mode? Roberta Flack?? “Danny Boy”??? Why not throw in Caruso and the Clash while they’re at it? But doggone, folks: He makes it work.

Cash kicks the album off with his newest composition, the sweeping, apocalyptic title track.  It’s a surreal tour-de-force inspired by Revelation and other apocalyptic biblical literature -- there’s no doubt who “The Man” is who’s coming around -- and manages to be both ominous and expectant, the voice and music carrying mingled joy and dread and awe. If we're honest, that's how most of us, no matter how much we may love His appearing, view His coming around. Enhanced ably by guitarists Randy Scruggs and Smokey Hormel, with Benmont Tench on organ and piano, this one deserves to stand with Cash classics, right there with “Folsom Prison Blues.” 

More good news: Johnny’s in better voice than on the last album, “Solitary Man.” It’s still a bit ragged -- he probably wouldn’t be able to roar “my name is Sue/how do you do?/now you gonna die” these days -- but his vocal instrument remains rich, full of character and nuance and subtlety and power.

As for the covers -- well, here’s a tip: Don’t think of them as covers. Think of Cash as a “songcatcher” -- which he’s been for nigh unto 50 years now, anyway -- who’s found a batch of compositions that reflect his triplet themes of the heart, the soul and the dark impulses of the mind (or, like the recent brilliant compilation, “Love, God, Murder”).  Some may gripe that this collection lacks cohesion, but I'm not sure life is ever as tidy and cohesive as we sometimes expect art to be.

Heard apart from their original context, these songs all take on new and deeper resonance: the Beatles’ gentle reflection “In My Life” seems even truer from the septuagenarian Cash than the then-youthful Fabs; Sting’s “I Hung My Head” sounds every bit the gothic ballad it was intended. Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (made famous by Flack) takes on newer meaning when considering the love story between Johnny and June Carter Cash, one that almost certainly saved his life; Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” is lent additional gravitas by a man whose addictions and demons once led him to lie in a cave and wait for death.  Even “Desperado” (with
Don Henley helping on vocals) sounds more substantial than it ever did or could in the hands of the Eagles. Cash also delivers a respectable version of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” aided by Fiona Apple on vocals, and the original Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” with Nick Cave. And finally, Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” is a revelation: While I suspect Depeche meant the song at least partly ironically, lines like “reach out and touch faith” are transformed by Cash’s own scarred and tested belief in “someone to hear your prayers ... someone who’s there ...”  It turns out to be a highlight of the album.

Cash also revisits his own “Give My Love to Rose” and “Tear-Stained Letter” -- doesn’t bring much new to them, but they’re fine enough songs he doesn’t have to. Then there are arrangements of the western death-song “Streets of Laredo” and -- for those partial to the darker side of Cash -- a version of “Sam Hall,” a defiant murderer’s indictment of the civilization that condemns him. Hearing the repeated admonition, “Damn your eyes!” is funny at the first listen, sinister and tragic at the second, both on the third. And subsequent.

As for “Danny Boy” -- well, why not? Let the Man in Black sing whatever he wants. Heaven knows it’s better than nine-tenths of what you’ll hear on country radio. Like this stands a chance on country radio.

Along with Scruggs, Tench, Apple and Henley, guests include Billy Preston (lending a rollicking vibe to “Personal Jesus”), Mike Campbell, Nick Cave, Marty Stuart, “Cowboy” Jack Clement, among others. Cash’s son John Carter Cash serves as associate producer.
 
To summarize: another warm, rich, deep, textured and, yes, weird album from one of America’s true originals. Word is, Rubin’s said he’ll work with Cash on the “American” albums as long as Johnny wants to keep doing ‘em, so -- God willing, with Cash’s health the way it is these days -- there may be some similarly warm, rich, deep, textured, weird albums on deck. 
 
The Artist of the Century has once more taken his guns to town.

L. David Wheeler 1/20/2003
 

   
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