Johnny Cash – American III: Solitary Man

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Overrated. On the record, I’d use that word to describe Johnny Cash’s entire American series; in fact, I think I might. If you took the best songs from all of them, you’d have a great album on your hands, but as it were, you have a lot of Godawful covers from a man whose voice is reduced to a croak so he speaks instead of sings (ie. no way his cover of U2’s “One” comes close to the original without the immortal falsetto launch) over a competent acoustic background. Yeah, not exactly a flattering description. Thankfully, American III: Solitary Mandoesn’t have the attention that the attractive swan song quality gaveAmerican IV: The Man Comes Around, nor does it have the overplayed and overrated “Hurt” or covers of nobody’s favorite covers, like “Danny Boy” and “Desperado.” People praise Rick Rubin’s production (on that note, have you seen pictures of that guy? He looks like an artist’s rendition of what God would probably look like on The Simpsons), but with a few exceptions (ie. “The Mercy Seat” and closer “Wayfaring Stranger”), all he does is give Johnny Cash his guitar and nice recording room, but newsflash! Any producer could’ve done that. I guess Rubin probably made the calls for Tom Petty and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy to appear here, “Hey guys! Have you ever wanted to sing backing vocals on your most well-known songs instead of lead vocals? Because now you can!” 

Let’s start with “I See A Darkness” because that’s one of my favorite (sad) songs. Again, the word here is competent but the number of the sheer amount of should-have-been’s is what makes me depressed,not the actual cover. Let’s grab Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, but only delegate him into the role for harmonizing the chorus. Let’s not use him to bring the emotional counterpoint that the original (“Well, you were my friend (That’s what you told meeeeee) / And can you see (What’s inside of meeeee)”). Let’s not keep the nifty idiosyncrasies that separated Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy from his contemporaries (“There’s a hope that somehow you you“). I’m left penciling in between the silences in both cases. Not to mention the fact that when Johnny Cash blurts out, “Never go to sleep,” it’s a wholly unconvincing moment on what should’ve been the most empowering line in the song. I hear actual emotion – actual “hurt” (pun not intended, it just happens to be the best word to describe it) – in Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s version. This just sounds like everything other ballad Johnny Cash puts his name to in his American series. 

Anyway, like I said, just grab the best songs: opener “I Won’t Back Down” wins over the relative failures of the songs I’ve already spoken on. It foregoes the bounce of Tom Petty’s original and the song becomes a statement, his answer to his disease, if you will. It’s one of the few times on American III: Solitary Man where he turns the original into his own, a quality of the best of covers. Great opening riff, too, and the same goes for the crystalline one of “Solitary Man.” Meanwhile, Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” is the only time that one of the covers here sounds like it could’ve been his own creation. On that one, I’ll defer to Rolling Stone‘s Ben Ratliff’s description (italicized bits are mine), “It takes Nick Cave and Mick Harvey’s overpoetic “The Mercy Seat,” smack in the middle of the album, to represent what the album could have achieved: The song has a layered production, with organ, regular and tack piano, and accordion swelling and receding under Cash’s onrushing, Leonard Cohen-like delivery. It’s the moment of the greatest artistic risk.” Actually, I’d go a step further: it’s theonly moment of artistic risk. 

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