Saturday, February 19, 2011

CD Odyssey Disc 242: Johnny Cash

In my last review I hoped for a little rock and roll, but instead I got a little country. That's OK, I'm a little bit rock and roll AND a little bit country.

Disc 242 is...American IV: The Man Comes Around
Artist: Johnny Cash

Year of Release: 2002

What’s Up With The Cover?: In case you're wondering, the cover makes it clear the album is by Johnny CASH. Also, there's a picture of him looking seasoned and thoughtful. This cover wisely doesn't try to do too much, and yet reminds you of Johnny Cash's iconic status.

How I Came To Know It: I've known Johnny Cash all my life (I grew up with my Mom playing his records), but this particular record came to my attention because of the incredible video for the song "Hurt" which introduced Cash to a whole new generation of fans.

How It Stacks Up: I have six Johnny Cash albums, four studio albums, one live and one 'best of'. Of the five that aren't 'best ofs', I would put this one third, or right in the middle.

Rating: 3 stars.

American recordings picked up Johnny Cash in the early nineties after he was dumped from his record label, Columbia (and a short stint at Mercury). This is the 4th such album, all produced by Rick Rubin. It is also the last record Cash released while alive (he died a year later). There is an American Recordings V, but it was released posthumously.

OK, enough with the post-modern blah blah blah - how's the music? In a word - uneven. In a few more words, brilliant in places and atrocious in others.

On the plus side, this album starts off with a couple five star tracks. The first is a Johnny Cash original, "The Man Comes Around" which is a fast paced folk song about the End of Days, and how we're all going to answer for our sins soon enough (Cash was an ardent Christian). Whether you think the End of Days is going to happen or not, this song does a fine job of making you feel that it is imminent.

My favourite image in the song is:

"And the whirlwind is in the thorn trees
The virgins are all trimming their wicks."

I'm not certain why the virgins are trimming their wicks, but it sounds ominous. And as for a whirlwind amidst a bunch of thorn trees - that's just dangerous.

"The Man Comes Around" was also famously used for the opening credits of the remake of "Dawn of the Dead", where it fits perfectly against a backdrop of television footage of the zombie apocalypse underway.

The next track was the one that reignited Cash's fame, a remake of the Nine Inch Nails song, "Hurt". I won't say much about this, since everyone knows it well enough. I'll just say that Cash takes a song originally about drug abuse and turns it into a song about growing old and fading into obscurity. He owns this song so completely, when I finally heard the original version I thought there was something wrong with it.

The album is mostly remakes, done with widely varying degrees of success. Another strong one is Cash doing a Sting song, "I Hung My Head" and although many don't like it, I'm also fond of his reimagining of the Depeche Mode song, "Personal Jesus" which Cash manages to strip of all sexual and ironic connotation. In his hands it just becomes a devotional to God.

Cash was obviously preparing for his departure with this record. His opening comments in the liner notes is about his relationship with God, and is too perfect a blend of earnestness and humour not to share:

"I am persuaded that nothing can separate me from my love of my God, my wife, and my music. Life is rich when I can come home, after hours in the studio, feeling as frayed as a hundred Big G strings, and curl up to June Carter...That's when I give God a "Thanks a lot, Chief." Sometimes in the morning I'll say, "Good Morning" to the Awesome Presence, but sometimes I forget to."

Unfortunately, for every brilliant reimagining of a song, "American IV" has one that is truly awful. "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", the Beatles' "In My Life" and "We'll Meet Again" may be old standards, but Johnny makes them feel positively ancient. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" isn't much better, and is made only slightly bearable by Cash's obviously honest rendition. It may be honest, but Art Garfunkel it is not.

Cash also remakes songs he sang when he was younger, including "Sam Hall" and "Streets of Laredo". Having grown up with the earlier versions, I was in a good position to make a direct comparison, and I am sad to say that while they are OK, these new versions don't stand up to the ones Cash did in his prime.

With some five star classics, and a few stink bombs, I decided to split the uprights on this one, and gave it 3 stars.

Best tracks: The Man Comes Around, Hurt, I Hung My Head, Personal Jesus

1 comment:

Sheila said...

3 points! I am in agreement on all aspects of this album, from the cringefest to the shining stars. I can't watch the video for "Hurt" without crying like a bebe.