Thursday, June 4, 2009

Johnny Cash's 'American IV: The Man Comes Around' is a brilliant, astonishing album

I was going through a stack of albums that I had not listened to in a while, when I uncovered Johnny Cash's great American IV: The Man Comes Around. The album was part of a series of recordings he made with Rick Rubin that led to a resurgence in his career before he died.

Think about it. How many artists produced memorable music over a span of almost 50 years? Beginning in the 1950s at Sun Records through his final albums earlier this decade, Cash defied the odds.

Most of the album features Cash covering songs of artists he admired. Though Cash is most associated with country music, the songs here are really all over the road. The song list includes: Hank Williams' 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry,' The Beatles' 'In My Life,' Simon and Garfunkel's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water,' and The Eagles' 'Desperado.'

Other songs include: Roberta Flack's 'First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,' the Irish ballad 'Danny Boy,' and the nostalgic 'We'll Meet Again.' Although many of these songs are quite well known, Cash breathes life into them and makes them his own.

The song from this set that got the most radio and television airplay was his version of Trent Reznor's 'Hurt.' The accompanying video was chilling, as Cash revealed his frailties for all to see. Cash knew he was nearing the end of his life, causing the song's images to resonate even more deeply. His artistic honesty remained in tact until the end.

The most interesting song on the album is the opening track 'The Man Comes Around.' Cash wrote this one, and his liner notes provide fascinating insight into the tune. It also provides insight into the creative process.

"I wrote and recorded 'The Man Comes Around' early on in this project," Cash wrote, "and for three or four months I recycled that song, over and over, until I'd have to get up out of bed, and turn on the radio. It worked for a while, but my inner playback system always went back to 'The Man Comes Around.'

"I spent more time on this song than any I ever wrote. It's based, loosely, on the book of 'Revelation' with a couple of lines, or a chorus, from other biblical sources. I must have written three dozen pages of lyrics, then painfully weeded it down to the song you have here.

"The initial idea for the song came from a dream I had seven years ago. I was in Nottingham, England, and had bought a book called Dreaming of the Queen. The book talked about the great number of people in that country who dream that they are with Queen Elizabeth II. I dreamed that I walked into Buckingham Palace, and there she sat, knitting or sewing. She had a basket of fabrics and lace. Another woman sat beside her, and they were talking and laughing. As I approached, the Queen looked up at me and said, 'Johnny Cash! You’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.' Then of course, I awoke. I realized that 'Thorn tree in a whirlwind' sounded familiar to me. Eventually, I decided that it was biblical, and I found it in the book of 'Job.' From there, it grew into a song, and I started lifting things from the book of 'Revelation.' It became 'The Man Comes Around.'

"'Revelation' by its mere interpretation says that something 'is revealed.' I wish it were. The more I dug into the book the more I came to realize why it's such a puzzle, even to many theologians. Eventually, I shuffled my papers, so to speak, drew out four or five pages, and wrote my lyrics."

Indeed, the whirlwind is in the thorn tree. Cash has gone to another life now, but he certainly left his mark here. This is a powerful album.


Mister Jimmy said...

Great collection. I feel I must always point out that the tune Flack covered as a soul/easy listening/R&B vibe, was originally a folk tune by Ewan MacColl. I have it on an early Lightfood recording. Just sayin' . . .

Joltin' Django said...

If the video for "The Man Comes Around" don't make your toes curl ... well, won't nothin' make your toes curl.

Anonymous said...

Nice diversity of song choices.