2002 / Music

Review: Johnny Cash Shows He’s A New ‘Man’

Man In Black Reveals Some New Shades

I’ve recently gotten into watching the reruns of “Columbo” that my local TV station plays during the early morning hours. Of those I’ve seen, the episode in which Johnny Cash plays a gospel-tinged country singer who kills his wife/tormentor and her not-quite-legal daughter by drugging them and then parachuting from a crashing plane is one of my favorites.

Photo: "Hurt" Music Video

Photo: “Hurt” Music Video

While most installments of the show follow the same basic premise of “villain belittles Peter Faulk’s self-effacing detective,” this episode turns that idea on its head. Cash is so affable during his cat-and-mouse interactions with Columbo that if we hadn’t actually seen him methodically planning this overly elaborate murder, it would be easy to underestimate him as just a fun-loving country boy.

The same holds true for Cash’s music career. While it’s certainly fair to pigeonhole him based on the early rock and country songs that he’s famous for, the series of albums that Cash has recorded since 1994 with producer Rick Rubin — the latest is “American IV: The Man Comes Around” — cast him in a different light as a performer and establishes that there isn’t a song that Cash can’t sing.

What sets these records apart from Cash’s previous output are the eclectic cover songs that don’t exactly invoke thoughts of a country music legend — tunes written by Soundgarden, U2, Nick Cave, Beck and Tom Petty. On “American IV: The Man Comes Around,” Cash takes this a step further, mixing a trio of originals with refashioned songs by the Beatles, the Eagles, Hank Williams, Simon and Garfunkel, Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode.

On paper, these covers might seem like novelties or maybe an attempt to broaden Cash’s demographic, but there’s no denying that these songs sound fantastic and Cash sounds great singing them. On two of the most unusual (and standout) selections, Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” Cash comfortably bellows them as if he learned them from his in-laws, the Carter Family, decades ago (perhaps it was the songs’ biblical overtones that appealed to him).

Ably backed by members of Beck’s one-time road band and a couple of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Cash doesn’t just remake the songs into country songs by tacking on a pedal steel guitar or mandolin. Rather, he and Rubin crafted arrangements that are built around his impeccable voice and utilize scant instrumentation for dramatic effect.

It’s a gameplan that works. For Lennon-McCartney’s “In My Life,” the soft plucking of two guitars and gentle hum of a harmonium bolster Cash’s crooning about the web of relationships over the course of his life. That a 70-year-old Cash has a lot more to survey than the 20-something Beatles did when they wrote it gives the song a deeper meaning.

But instead of letting this feeling of wistfulness settle in, Cash follows “In My Life” by resurrecting his hard-edged persona for the traditional “Sam Hall.” Surely, hearing Cash shout, “I hate you all. Damn your eyes!” accompanied by a saloon-style piano should jerk everyone back to attention. The song is a return to the tough-talking Johnny who got into a bar brawl with his own dad in “Boy Named Sue” or the man who shot someon in Reno just to watch them die in “Folsom Prison Blues.”

The album also features a few quasi-duets with the likes of Fiona Apple, Nick Cave and Don Henley that are inconsistent overall. This essentially boils down to the fact that Cash’s voice is so dominating and such little slack is given to the guests that their contributions often seem extraneous.

While Cave and Cash trade lines on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” which gives him plenty of spotlight time, Apple’s soothing voice is muscled to the sidelines by Cash during “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” The pairing doesn’t so much harmonize as sing in unison, and her voice is so much higher than his it eventually becomes just a distraction.

But when it comes to singing the Eagles’ “Desparado” with Henley, it’s clear that this was a mistake through and through. The song’s lyrical cadences don’t seem to mesh comfortably with Cash’s rich singing style, leading to some awkward moments. Making matters worse, Henley’s chirpy appearance halfway through adds some unwelcome vocal interplay. This cowboy should stay out on the range for the foreseeable future.

In the big picture, however, these problems are outweighed by the strength of the album, particularly Cash’s new songs. Originals like “Hung My Head” and “The Man Comes Around” are powerful story songs dealing with death. While the former slowly tells a tale of murder and regret, the latter spews apocalyptic visions to a determined guitar strum.

“I have to hear it, sing it, and know that I can make it feel like my own, or it won’t work,” Cash wrote about the songs that he sings in the liner notes for his last album.

This is more than just an ideal that Cash is trying to live up. Without liner notes, many listeners might not be able to distinguish a cover from an original and vice versa. Like its predecessors, “American IV: The Man Comes Around” reveals a musical range that many might not know Cash has.

Columbo’s guiding rule, which is how he eventually caught Cash on the show, is to follow the evidence. With his album as just latest example, it proves that Johnny Cash is not just a country music legend but a musical one.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2002 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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