Give Life Back To Music 11.11.13: Johnny Cash - The Rubin Years: American IV: The Man Comes Around Posted by Sean Comer on 11.11.2013
411's Sean Comer continues his personal retrospective through Johnny Cash's American series with the final album before the Man in Black's death, 2002's American IV: The Man Comes Around!
Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around
For better and for worse – the former to one man in many things often presents the latter to the one beside him – all things inevitably reach their ends.
By late 2002, Johnny Cash was an American treasure and icon more than half a century deep into a lifetime of music. His songs had transcended generations to become bona fide national treasures. He lived a life remembered today as the stuff of country-music legend.
He was also 11 months from that life's last moments.
Cash lived long enough to receive acclaim for one final album, though two more full-length releases from his American Recordings sessions with Rick Rubin would follow in 2006 and 2010 respectively. As a farewell to a world that perhaps didn't deserve a heart of his kind but to which he gave so much of his conscience, soul and spirit, he gave us quite possibly the finest studio album since he and the great Sam Phillips laid down his very first singles in the Sun Records studios of Memphis. It would mark his first certified-platinum release since 1969's Live at San Quentin.
It also happens to be one of my all-time favorite albums to ever grace any genre.
This is American IV: The Man Comes Around. This album reintroduced me to Johnny Cash.
American IV: The Man Comes Around
RELEASED: November 5, 2002
I believe that many sentient living things reach a unique, quite literally once-in-a-lifetime awareness when their respective lives reach their ends.
Cash's music has always been a chronicle of life's barest, most unflinching and unapologetic truths. Many have carried a torch for the optimism in human existence. Few quite like Cash have shared and crystalized not only the bliss to be found but the raw truths in its sorrows. He may sing the ballad of a man's death, but not without singing of the beloved people that the man loved, the peace he found in death that could be his in life, or the final repentant moments making peace with his God before going to join Him.
Since Cash's passing, I've believed that he knew the sun was setting on his last day. The Man Comes Around is a peaceful, poignant, reflective portrait of death as a resolution of sorrows and the arrival, at least, of rest. In background, surrounding the acceptance of the end heard in Cash's every breath, we glimpse shadows of the finales to which men's chosen roads have led. We meet the newly paroled prisoner left to die along a road he was traveling to a reunion with his wife and son. A young man awaits the gallows after unintentionally but suddenly ending an unsuspecting lone rider's life with a single shell.
It all begins, however, with a recitation from Genesis.
The addition of a weathered-sounding phonograph filter to Cash's spoken-word opening to "The Man Comes Around" is an unusually decorative touch. He and Rubin rarely sweetened anything in post-production. Still, beginning the final album to be released during the deeply faithful Cash's last year with the prophetic description of the Four Beasts arrival to herald the apocalypse is more than fitting. He penned the song especially for this album, and it is quite easily among the most profound songs to ever come from his hand. Once more, the arrangement is bare-essentials pure, an almost chillingly steady trot to match the strength of Cash's voice.
This rendering of the Rapture's ultimate joy and relief has been used in many places since its release, but I'll always remember it as the backing for Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake's opening credits.
It's a perfecting ramp on which we ease into this movingly personal album. But then there's "Hurt".
I say this without exception, qualification or proviso: not a man, woman or child who walks this mortal coil with blood in veins and beating heart could hear this and be unmoved.
Incredibly, this famously gripping, frail, bare cover almost didn't happen. Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor initially resisted giving Cash his blessing to record and release the song. Instinctive doubts made Reznor fear that a genre-swapped remake would be a "gimmicky" treatment to a song born of as raw a nerve as the many that Reznor has scraped for over 20 years to make his music.
Are the two really so different, though? A great many of Reznor's most compelling, widely acclaimed songs – "Hurt" especially included – are products of bleeding his lifetime spent at war with depression, loss and addiction. "Hurt" is an especially desperate self-indictment of the onslaught Reznor brought upon himself through substance abuse and self-medication, not to mention an admission to his battery of close relationships around him.
Cash's life might've never exactly mirrored the grim, industrial textures and motifs of Reznor's Nine Inch Nails compositions. However, he bore the scars of loss and the weight of lives wounded by his own addictions and hard living through most of his 71 years. In their earliest years together, it was indeed his late wife, June Carter Cash, who could be called the saving grace that made an upright man of him.
In truth, Cash fittingly honors Reznor's words. In fact, though the weary earnestness and peace in Cash's voice paints the picture in his own shades of black, the etchings that he darkens remain very much Reznor's in tempo and feel. Like "The Man Comes Around" before it on the album, it's left to Cash's guitar to deliver the melody while the sparingly added piano merely punctuates and accents the words with thundering chords in the background as the song climaxes. Incredibly, Cash changes very little, though he does opt for a guitar tone that eliminates the original's warped bend and also eliminates a lone profanity.
It happens only occasionally in music: an artist records a song first, maybe even earns it some renown of its own, but a latter-day cover redefines its spirit and indelibly associates the song with someone else. "Hurt" is seemingly a spectacularly moving tipping of the cap to a world that Cash loved perhaps more than it sometimes deserved.
The somewhat bouncing "Sam Hall" excepted, the album is the first of Cash's work with Rubin to completely shelve the Man in Black's signature rollicking "boom-chicka-boom" pace that defined outlaw country for decades on end. In its place, Cash dons the hat of the Old West storyteller. Admitting up front that I absolutely love the original soundtrack and ambient flavoring of the Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption, if there's a quintessential alternate score to lend gameplay throughout turn-of-the-century New Austin, it's this album.
For the second time in his career, Cash touched up the legendary Hank Williams' "Give My Love To Rose" and adds an entirely new shade of sadness to a wounded man's parting words to a stranger. Meanwhile, his re-rendering of Sting's "I Hung My Head" is positively gorgeous. It's just a shame that something couldn't have been worked out to have had him perhaps joined by Mr. Sumner himself.
The remaining covers reach deep into the annals of music's greatest songwriters – some of them Cash's contemporaries, others gifted scribes who rose to fame perhaps during his career along a parallel path but outside his own circle. Simon and Garfunkel have been covered many times throughout the years, but Cash's version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" featuring the movingly rich appearance of Fiona Apple might exceed them all thanks to a warm choral crescendo that brings it to resolution with Cash's and Apple's complementary voices leading the rise.
The standard-bearing cover of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" among my generation is usually Marilyn Manson's admittedly impressive take. Fair enough. I get the appeal, what with its effective amping-up of the original's decadent swagger. Cash's version, though? Well, Cash and Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist alum John Frusciante revamped it into a bluesy freight train with a sharply spiritual bent that Martin Gore probably never quite pictured it having.
Oh, but arguably my "Best of the Rest" pic?
Words don't quite do it justice. Sorry, kids. I'm just letting this one speak for itself….
Um. That is to say, I would if the videos containing it hadn't been slapped with copyright claims by Warner Bros…..
That awkwardness aside….
The album ends with a lazily peaceful version of Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again". To a world that Cash dearly loved, it feels less like a platitude and more like a reassuring promise.
If these albums are the ones that are definitive of everything that country music can be at its best, then this farewell from a good man to a cruel world is in a class by itself. To me, it's more than emblematic of just country music's honesty. My mom and dad did their best to present me with examples of better living through integrity, even when the world didn't thank you for it. In particular, Dad has always been a hero to me, even when we haven't seen eye-to-eye.
Which happens often. And is usually my fault.
I think that's why I gravitated to that early country music: the lack of pretention and the simple backbone that mirrored my upbringing. When I was younger, it frustrated me that Dad could never simply apologize for being wrong about something. He would always stick to his guns and never really say "I'm sorry." He has lived by his faith in his convictions, in never being anything more or less than absolutely who he knew he was. Every day, I've come to appreciate that he's always been an avatar of the words by which I end this and every column.