Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around

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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. That being said,American IV: The Man Comes Around is much better than its predecessor, partly because it contains the best song from either, but mostly because Rick Rubin doesn’t just give Johnny Cash his guitar and nice recording room. As on American III, big names are pulled in to sing backing vocals, from Fiona Apple (on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” who sounds like she’s trying desperately hard to not take over the song when she’s not just harmonizing alongside Cash) to Nick Cave (on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”), but unlike American III, session musicians are practically everywhere so we’re not left alone with a lot of Godawful covers from a man whose voice is reduced to a croak so he speaks instead of sings (ie. Eagles’ “Desperado,” which is one of their few good melodies, is on here, melodyless, as is a rendition of “Danny Boy,” placed right after).

Let’s start with “Hurt,” because that’s become Johnny Cash’s most famous song – undeservedly (and yes, I’m well aware that Trent Reznor approves of Johnny Cash’s cover). I hear actual emotion – actual “hurt” (pun not intended, it just happens to be the best word to describe it) – in Nine Inch Nail’s version. This just sounds like everything other ballad Johnny Cash puts his name to in his American series, ‘cept with a music video. Moreover, the lyrical change from “Crown of shit” to “Crown of thorns,” other than to change a PG-13 song into an “E for Everyone” affair, makes no sense! A crown of thorns was placed on Jesus’ head right before the crucifixion. Is Johnny Cash saying he’s Jesus? No. Is Johnny Cash telling us he’s about to die? If so, that’s some truly prophetic business, like Notorious B.I.G. dying after an album titled Ready to Die and before an album titled Life After Death. That being said, it’s still probably the best cover to have come out of the American series; check out the mellotron filling in the empty spaces during the second verse. Sounds as terrifying as the empty spaces of the original.

Anyway, like I said, just grab the best songs: Sting’s “I Hung My Head” feels practically written for Johnny Cash and I don’t see myself seeking out the source material anytime soon; John Frusciante whips up a great bluesy riff to drive Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” and this one is frankly better than the original (on my point in the intro paragraph, were this released two years ago, that would have been that, but on American IV, Rick Rubin hires someone to throw in some Nicky Hopkins-like colors for good measure); “In My Life” has some muted guitar plinks used really effectively, which play hide-and-seek with twinkes during the song’s bridge; a really maudlin reading of “We’ll Meet Again” is saved by a sunny clarinet (when the backing vocals come in at the song’s last act, it really feels like an over-the-top staged production where everyone comes out to bid the audience adieu, instead of the Johnny Cash goodbye that I feel like it was meant to be). 

The best song though, is “The Man Comes Around,” the only song here written by Johnny Cash that wasn’t written before. To usePitchfork’s Eric Carr’s words (I’ve italicized the important bits) – back when they weren’t scared to call an artist out on their bullshit – “an epic tale of apocalypse, interpreting Revelations with uplifting exuberance. Restraint, resignation, and a hope of peace pervade the prophetic imagery. Truly, the subdued fury and beauty of this track reduces everything that follows. The immediate question posed is: if this man can still write and perform works of this caliber, why is he resorting to the words and music of others? Ideally, the covers should speak this answer for themselves. Unfortunately, Cash fails to give them voice to do so, and as such, they remain unfortunately silent.

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