Life And Death
It’s Easter Sunday. I was wondering what to listen to on a day that is so much about life and death, hope and hurt, love and desperation. It didn’t take a lot of thinking. That’s more or less exactly what this album is all about.
It’s strange how some folks who have written about “The Man Comes Around” don’t find it coherent. I found it quite obvious what is holding this album together. Being alive, having lived through all the emotions and troubles a human being can be subjected to, and being aware of the fact that death is both certain and maybe even relatively close.
Maybe to some it seemed somehow random to select songs from such a wide range of artists, from the Beatles to Nine Inch Nails, from Simon & Garfunkel to Depeche Mode. It might blur the view on what they all have in common.
Admittedly, I really, really don’t like Country. And that’s putting it mildly. I know, most of what we get to hear from that side of the music world is just crappy, cliche-ridden Top 40 shallowness, and I know there is another side to it – but I never felt compelled to look for a kind of Country music that I might not find hard to bear.
Most Country-averse people will make at least one exception though, and that’s Johnny Cash. Others exceptions might be Willie Nelson or Hank Williams. But Cash is above all of them, even above the Country category itself.
This album proves a simple point. You can’t be credible singing about righteousness if you haven’t sinned, you can’t sing convincingly about hope if you haven’t been down and desperate, and you can probably only sing about life like this if you have been or are close enough to death. Listening to the title track, you even get the impression that Cash’s description of Death riding on a pale horse is not a tale about the end of days but something the man himself must have witnessed.
“The Man Comes Around” is one of four songs on this album that aren’t cover versions. I gotta admit, I admire his writing skills. “Sam Hall” is pure writing genius. The tightest of stories, yet extremely expressive, a whole life, a complete character and a classic story, all compressed into six little verses, and sung in a way that brings it all to life, the whole thing passing by in your head like it must have gone through Sam Hall’s head just before he went a-swingin.
Of course, there’s that big one on this album, “Hurt”, the Nine Inch Nails cover. I read somewhere that the song was too much of an obvious choice. That’s about as dumb as standing in front of a piece of modern art and saying “I could have painted that too”. It completely misses the fact that Cash is able to take what Reznor had created, strip it down even more, and make it his own. I find it utterly amazing that someone can sing the very same lyrics, tell the same story, and still give you a decidedly different view on life, pain and self-hatred. Reznor’s view is inwards, Cash’s is reflective, outward bound.
It’s hard not to get emotional listening to this. But for me, the one song that really gets me close to shedding a tear or two is “We’ll Meet Again”. It’s painfully obvious that it was recorded in full knowledge of the fact that Johnny Cash would not live much longer, changing the place where we meet again from somewhere on this planet to up in heaven after our lives have ended. I don’t believe in all that heaven and hell stuff – but this version of the song has the power to make me wish that indeed we are all reunited up there somewhere.
Almost equally deep and moving is “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. There are love songs, and there’s this song. It’s not about the love that’s there, it’s about the love that has always been there. There is love beyond love.
There are some surprising choices on this album, and I’m not sure who picked the cover versions, whether it was Cash himself, or whether Rubin might have suggested one or the other. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” for example. To me, it’s not “Hurt” that is a little too obvious or too close, it’s this one. After about half the song, Fiona Apple joins in, and every time I wonder where that voice is coming from, as if someone was singing along somewhere close by, but no, it’s on the album, and somehow it’s not a duet.
The other unexpected choice is “Personal Jesus”. It’s not necessarily my favorite Depeche Mode song, and I suspect that it makes it hard to judge Cash’s version fairly. But the fact that it doesn’t not work is a big achievement already. It even works better than the Beatles cover, “In My Life”. Respectfully and beautifully rendered, but that’s about it.
My biggest surprise on this album is “I Hung My Head”. Never ever would I have guessed that this isn’t a Johnny Cash original – let alone a song originally composed and recorded by Sting. Who would have thought that Sting could write a genuine Johnny Cash song. Still – so much more powerful here.
Reading about the album there are quite a few mentions about his voice being weak and fragile, the voice of an old man approaching the end of his life. I keep listening to the album and I always feel like his voice should sound exactly the way it does. I don’t care whether it’s a matter of fact or an artistic choice to sound this way. Bottom line is – the album would not have half as much impact if Cash had been able to access the full strength of his young voice.
“Desperado” gets so much more depth sung by a man that has seven decades of life to look back upon, rendering a much needed piece of advice. How much power can be present in a voice that doesn’t have to be powerful is shown in Hank Williams’ classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. Nick Cave partners up with Cash on this one – and sounds like an over-eager school boy next to the old man.
There’s humor as well, and another magnificent piece of songwriting – “Tear Stained Letter” is a funny little song and a great example of creating a lively and believable character with a few lines of lyrics. The words of a simple man that has a hard time accepting the end of his relationship, vowing to write a letter to his ex that will make her cry real bad and feel miserable for having left him. Great storytelling, again.
I remember reading somewhere that “We’ll Meet Again” was the last song that Cash ever recorded. Not entirely impossible as this was the last album published while he was still alive. No idea whether this is true. I actually want this to be true. It is the most beautiful goodbye he could have chosen, leaving us in hopes that we might join in singing with the Cash family on a cloud somewhere, accompanying the man that will probably even wear black up in heaven. We’ll meet again some sunny day.
Release for review:
JOHNNY CASH – AMERICAN IV – THE MAN COMES AROUND – AMERICAN RECORDINGS – 0600753463673