How great a singer and what a prophet of truth Johnny Cash was. And how much he gave to popular music and how much he is missed. Of the countless renditions of “Danny Boy” recorded since the song was first published in 1913, Cash’s version here ranks among the most heartfelt.
Listening to Cash on Sun Records, thinking about how his voice evolved over his long, varied career—and how much he added to American popular music.
The story of Johnny Cash and why he will always be remembered as a singer with few equals.
The 87th album of Johnny Cash’s long career, the last released during his lifetime, and his first gold album in 30 years, American IV: The Man Comes Around is most renowned for his rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” After hearing Cash’s cover and seeing the accompanying video, Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor, who had initially not been particularly enthusiastic about Cash covering the song, famously remarked, “That song isn’t mine anymore.” Nominated for seven MTV Video Awards, American IV: The Man Comes Around also won a Grammy and a CMA Album of the Year Award.
The inherent power of the record, which in spots feels excruciatingly sad—the melancholy organ and voice-only reading of “Danny Boy,” for instance—conveys the sense Cash, a man who lived it all, is now settling his accounts and preparing for his eternal rest. Started when the country icon was 62, the Cash/Rubin records became ever-more personal statements not only about Cash’s astonishing genius as a singer and wise man, but about his emotional journey towards his passing. They are literally the sound of a preeminent artist winding down, coming to terms with his impending mortality. As a result, they are raw, incredibly personal works of art.
Minimal sonic differences exist between the 2014 180-gram Rubin-supervised LP remaster and the original pressing—probably because the original mixes are so natural, uncomplicated, and satisfying. Like the other 2014 LP reissues in the Cash/Rubin series, the sound here feels a touch brighter and louder. While some could argue the new reissue may be too detailed in spots, it makes the rasp in Cash’s voice in “Danny Boy” that much more heartrending.
American IV: The Man Comes Around features return guests such as Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. Don Henley, Fiona Apple, and Nick Cave all sing duets with Cash while Billy Preston (keyboards) and Cash’s old producer, Jack Clement (dobro), add their instrumental talents. Cash’s singing, now equal parts singing and talking, is tastefully supported in several duets—most successfully in his awesome pairing with Cave on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
As the first double album in the series, American IV: The Man Comes Around triggered debate over whether it could have been pared down to a tighter, more focused single record. The answer is affirmative. For the first time in a series renowned for its adventurous song choices, several tracks fall flat. A rendition of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “In My Life” fails to catch fire. The same holds true for a take on Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which became a career-defining hit for Roberta Flack. The duet with Apple on “Bridge over Troubled Water” treads dangerously close to filler. And Cash adds little to a collaboration with Henley on “Desperado,” a tune that should never have been included. Putting the story of an old cowboy fading away on a record that serves as an obvious farewell feels like overkill.
One last note about the 2014 reissue. It omits “Wichita Lineman” and “Big Iron,” bonus tracks present on the original vinyl pressing. Both appeared later on the 2003 Unearthed CD box set (later reissued in 2017 as an American Recordings 7-LP box set).
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