I’ve been putting this one off for an entire year, but when I first thought about this blog and what I wanted to set out to do with it, a few albums came to mind that I would have to dedicate a lot of time and thought to, and thus would have to wait until the end of the year to really talk about. This is one of those albums, and it’s one of the most important and emotionally powerful albums that I have ever listened to. Please bear with me on the length of this thing, only this is one of the albums this entire blog has led up to, this is Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around, the penultimate album in his discography, and the last one to be released in his lifetime:
It seems so long ago that I was talking about Cash’s previous album, American III: Solitary Man, but that was due to a lack of restraint because I just get so excited about these albums. American IV and American V are different, even if I like to imagine them in the same trilogy as American III. Still, The Man Comes Around marks a place in my heart that not a lot of albums get to, because it was one of the first Johnny Cash albums I ever heard, and the effect on my very view of what could be conveyed through music was wrapped up in that first listen. If ever an album could change someone’s life for the better, this is one of the albums that has had such an effect on me.
The album, along with the other two mentioned, was recorded after a sharp decline in Johnny Cash’s health had him hospitalized and at Death’s door. Of course, it was not Cash’s time to go, as he would have been leaving June Carter behind, so the Man In Black came to and went right back to recording albums, however, he knew things were getting bad.
In a way, American IV is about half-epitaph, and half just Cash doing what he’d been doing best for his whole career: turning excellent songs into excellent Johnny Cash songs. The subject of death permeates both types of songs, as they had so many years ago when Cash felt on the brink of death because of drugs. The album could be seen as being a bit self-pitying, especially since he covers a song by the king of self-pitying, Trent Reznor, but in my eyes, Cash’s life, faith, and character kind of nullifies any sort of petty thoughts one might have about these songs.
There is perhaps no better song to convey this mixture of faith and the inevitability of fate than Cash’s amazing original song, the title track to the album. “The Man Comes Around” was originally written in Cash’s “boom chicka boom” style, albeit a little more grandly, but ultimately, to keep it in tune with the rest of the album, a more powerful and epic instrumentation was applied. It’s perfectly appropriate of course, because if you’ve ever read the Bible, the most epic and powerful part of the whole thing is The Book of Revelation, the final book, and “The Man Comes Around” is Cash’s own condensing of Revelation, which is pretty damned appropriate, given that Cash was one of music’s most outspoken Christians, and Revelation was also written by a “John”. The lyrics basically outline the afterlife, the reality of judgment and the terrifyingly, well, biblical visual ideas:
There’s a man going ’round, taking names
And he decides who to free and who to blame
Everybody won’t be treated all the same
There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down
When the Man comes around
The hairs on your arm will stand up
With the terror in each sip, and in each sup
Will you partake of that last offered cup?
Or disappear into the potter’s ground,
When the Man comes around?
Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers
One hundred million angels singing
Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum
Voices calling, voices crying
Some are born and some are dying
It’s Alpha And Omega’s Kingdom come
As you can see, it draws from many biblical sources, including one inspired by Job, a line that goes “It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks”, which was also the inspiration for an album by Nick Cave (who makes an appearance on this album) called Kicking Against The Pricks. Cash was told the line in a dream, by Queen Elizabeth II, who knew she was such a lyricist?
The instrumentation to the song is also intense, with heavy, bassy piano joining the partially muted acoustic guitar in pounding out the shuffling rhythm. The percussive nature of this song is really interesting, especially on the chord change behind the line “big kettle drum”, as they kind of sound like a kettle drum, but no drums are present on this song. It’s a great example of music referring directly to the lyrics, which is normally something one does in a humorous song, but there is no humor in this song, only conviction.
This song is what I consider to be the most intense of the whole set, which might be surprising given the next song, but being religious myself, there’s something really profound in these words. Johnny Cash is a lot of things to a lot of people, but this song really puts him behind the pulpit for me. It makes sense, priests are supposed to wear all black, for the same reason Johnny Cash did, but I’m glad he stuck with singing anyway.
The song is bookended by Cash reciting bits of Scripture, and the sound is changed to make it sound like an ancient recording, to chilling effect. Indeed, the segue from this song to the next song contains a fitting and terrifying verse:
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts
And I looked and behold, a pale horse
And his name that sat on him was Death
And Hell followed with him
(Revelation 6:6, 8.)
Indeed, Death and Hell follow as Cash goes on to song a song written by a very pale horse indeed.
When all is said and done, I have very mixed feelings about Cash’s cover of “Hurt” by Trent Reznor (the key member of Nine Inch Nails, a band popular with “the kids”). On the one hand, it’s one of the most intense, despair-provoking songs in the entirety of Cash’s songbook by far, and its relevance to the youth of today assured this album would have a place in many iPods and CD players. The down-side to this, I feel, is just how well the song did. According to Zune (which tracks player listens), this song alone is his most listened to has been played by Zune owners 615,000 times, versus the 229,000 times that the second highest, incidentally “The Man Comes Around”, has been played. I’ve seen very similar results on iTunes and Napster as well. While I’m glad that Cash is getting the kind of recognition he deserves for really making a song his own (Trent’s own version of “Hurt” just falls short of 300,000 plays), it’s not a good song to represent Johnny Cash and his amazing life and faith.
However, to counter this point, the song represents something that so very few songs do properly: conveying the depth of emotion that a person is capable of feeling. “Hurt”, as sung by Johnny Cash, is something that, objectively, I would call the saddest song ever recorded. From the open minor chord progression on the acoustic guitar to the piano that thunders in the background and slowly comes to the foreground through the song’s chorus as it builds and builds only to completely drop off on the last word of “I will make you hurt”, this song is too intense to even be seen as a character piece. There is no way to manufacture or fake this song, even if the words aren’t Cash’s, the very fact that he was a man in his 70′s who was willingly winding down a life-time of regret, drug abuse, broken relationships, the kind of failures that affect us all, and very real pain was breaking down his body and occasionally his spirit and was threatening to ultimately do him in, lends this song more than a character, but a person for whom its bell tolls. This is Johnny Cash reading his own epitaph, and the perfect melody that a depressed kid threw against some keyboards and recorded on an admittedly really excellent “industrial” album some years ago now has an entirely new meaning. Cash’s shaky voice and the amazingly sparse yet full instrumentation behind this song makes it as grand a work as anything else I could think of. For this reason, I can see why this song is so popular, I only wish that it compelled people to listen to his other work more, which it might have. Indeed, the fact that “Hurt” has had so many plays on digital music sites might just be a sign of the times; they’re only counting the years that they’ve been around, and Johnny Cash had been around at least 5 decades before this whole digital outbreak.
One more point about “Hurt” is contained in its brilliant music video, directed by Mark Romanek, who incidentally directed two of Nine Inch Nails’ music videos. The music video is one of the only glimpses of Cash toward the end of his life that the general population had seen, especially before the Youtube age (indeed, it was my own first glimpse of Johnny playing a song, though I’m no television fan). The video interlaces the beautifully shot lip-syncing of the elderly Cash as June Carter looks on (which always brings a tear to my eye, sorry for the admission) with footage of Cash in an astonishing array of the many performances, eras, characters, and songs he had played. There’s a shot of him winking at the audience on his wonderful Town Hall Party appearance within the first 3 years of his career, a shot of him on a train, a shot with his son, a shot of him playing a bad guy in a movie, shots of his film about Jesus, all kinds of stuff. The video is really moving, I’d suggest giving it a watch.
After these two songs, one may forget that this is even a Johnny Cash album, instead of a Johnny Cash funeral, and thus the rest of the album is played more like a regular album, albeit with the same stark tone and insistence of the theme of faith and life and death and redemption that the previous songs established. In fact, many people die on this album, and the first one is the poor ex-convict in one of Cash’s earliest singles, “Give My Love To Rose”. Indeed, on an unassuming album called Sings Hank Williams, Cash’s very original and not-at-all-written-by-Hank-Williams hit (though Hank does make an appearance on this album) would be one of the earliest instances of Cash’s prowess as a songwriter. The story of the dying man’s request for the singer, who had found him by the rail-road track, to “give my love to Rose, please won’t you, mister” and all his other requests (which are admittedly pretty lengthy) as a final plea for love’s undying altruism is surprisingly well-conveyed here, 46 years later, and the familiarity of the song to people who have been a fan of Cash’s for years may very well bring a nostalgic tear to the eye. Beautiful stuff.
Indeed, the liner notes to the album, written by Cash, promise that “The fifteen songs that follow in this album take fifteen different directions”, and he wasn’t kidding. The fourth song in the fire is “Like A Bridge Over Troubled Water”, one of the biggest Paul Simon hits (and thus one of music’s biggest hits) and a very frequently covered song. On may wonder why Cash would choose such a standard song in the American contemporary songbook when even the material he chose that he wrote is on the obscure side; one may also wonder why angry musician Fiona Apple is singing backup on this song. One may also decide not to think about such things and just relax and enjoy the song with its cello-driven goodness and characteristically earnest delivery. This song is wonderful and Cash makes it even more so, and Fiona Apple, I’m told by the liner notes of the Unearthed compilation, was a very kind and respectful girl, but then Cash tends to draw a lot of respect from people who respect music, especially musicians.
Indeed, of all the unusual people to appear in this album, either as authors of the original songs or people directly involved with the album, the one that confuses me the most is Sting:
It’s not because Johnny Cash covered a Sting song, of course, many songwriters discordant with Cash’s own style have found their way into his repertoire, take Danzig for instance with his song “Thirteen”. Thing is, “Thirteen” was specifically written for Cash, whereas Sting’s song, “I Hung My Head”, was written for Sting and yet is a perfect Johnny Cash song. It confuses me to no end how such a great Cash-style song would come out of, well, a man of whom a semi-nude picture could be found on the first page of Google Image Search results for his name.
Indeed, “I Hung My Head”, contains a delicate, repetitive melody and lyrical theme of guilt told in a story set in the Old West (well, actually Ireland, as evidenced by the word “sheen” meaning “river”, which could admittedly happen in any continent). Being simultaneously Irish and Old West is what Johnny Cash is all about (even if his ancestry is Scottish), and this song is not only a perfect compliment to songs like “Give My Love To Rose” and “Streets Of Laredo”, but is, itself, a very moving song. The young boy who is represented by the singer borrows his brother’s rifle and goes out to practice his aim out on the plains, but accidentally kills a cowboy who was riding by and becomes riddled with guilt like the cowboy was riddled with deadly bullets. He is eventually caught and the line “I hung my head” suddenly becomes quite literal when it’s implied that he gets put to death. The song is quite sad, which is also in keeping with the album’s feel so far.
Another popular standard appears on this album in the form of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, which is a quite delicate love song (it was written to be sung by a woman, after all) and fits quite well with Cash’s maturity as a singer of songs. It’s interesting that, in a career that was initially built on very plain-spoken lovelorn serenades, Cash would choose one for this album that is breath-taking in its lyrical imagery. Even the title has a touch of Olde English to it. It’s also interesting that the song is so low and steady that the instrumentation sounds more like a dirge than any of the other songs that had dealt directly with death thus far.
The first hum-dinger of the set is “Personal Jesus”, which was a stand-out hit for Depeche Mode in that most sinister of decades: the 80′s. It’s interesting that Cash should go to the decade that forgot him for a cover, and it’s doubly interesting that this should be the second cover (to my knowledge) that was originally an electronics-heavy track re-imagined as an acoustic song (this one is quite bluesy, thanks to the efforts of one John Frusciante). Though it’s been written before that the song’s sardonic take on those phone-in ministries sounds weird coming from Cash, a deeply religious man, I can see Cash as the sardonic voice very well in this song. The song is definitely consistent with Johnny’s own spirituality, as he has little patience for insincerity, as evidenced by his own song “No Earthly Good”, so the song is a good fit, and a nice break from the slow pace of the rest of the album.
The album does indeed slow back down as Cash works through a poignant song indeed, “In My Life” from The Beatles. The song, while written originally as a nostalgic look back on John Lennon’s childhood, really takes on a whole new life when sung by someone in his 70′s who has really lived a long life. Even the line about friends, “Some are dead and some are living, in my life I’ve loved them all” rings truer for Johnny Cash, as most of his good friends had passed on by that point. The instrumentation is interesting, with a seemingly unnamed instrument that sounds a lot like a toy piano chiming out a backing to the soft acoustic guitar, which keeps the song’s original guitar melody intact. “In My Life” is a beautiful song that helps dispel the cloud of despair that “Hurt” introduced, and helps segue the album into a bit of fun.
Indeed, one of the last directions I would have expected this album to go in is the song “Sam Hall” from Sings The Ballads Of The True West, though I’m very glad it did. This version of the song about the condemned and very ornery titular character is the definitive version; I always felt the original was a little too “theatrical” since it’s mainly snarled by Cash, acting totally drunk and kind of killing the melody with his weird cackle. However, it’s the lack of theatrics that make this version all the more believable, and the shuffling “boom chicka boom” is back in swing for another round. The final nail in the coffin is that Cash, liberated from the strict moral code of Country music from back in the day, has no compunctions about ending every line of this classic tune with “Damn your/her/his eyes!”
With that fun behind us, Cash revisits another song from his past with a very sober version of “Danny Boy” from Orange Blossom Special. Now, I never liked this song, and Johnny Cash singing it does little to change my feelings, but I will say this is the absolute best version of the song I’ve heard. It’s played on nothing more than a pipe organ, from within an actual church, and Cash literally sang the song from the pulpit. Benmont Tench, the keyboardist for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and owner of a very robotic name, recalled (in the liner notes for Unearthed) that seeing Johnny Cash sing from behind a pulpit, where the recording gear was set up to make for the best acoustics, was a surreal sight indeed.
I’d hate to say that the presence of Don Henley (of The Eagles) on your album is about as indicative of death being nearby as the Grim Reaper at your doorstep, but this is two albums that Henley appeared on in the same year (the other being Warren Zevon’s The Wind) that ushered out two of music’s brightest stars. That’s not even the weird thing; the weird thing is that Don comes in to sing backup on Cash’s cover of an Eagles song. Isn’t that kind of cheating? Anyway, the song is “Desperado”, and it’s about as Western as The Eagles get, even if it’s a kind of goofy ode to sentiment dressed in a pair of chaps, but Johnny Cash does his best to make the song better, and Henley’s backup singing is solid as ever. You’ll just have to excuse me for not being so enthusiastic about this song, as I more or less hate The Eagles.
Two people I do not hate under any circumstances, however, are Nick Cave and Hank Williams, both of which help Cash out with making us all cry lonesome tears for our heroes departed. Though Johnny Cash covered Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” perfectly well on Now, There Was A Song!, this is by far my preferential version. This is one of two songs Cash sang with Nick Cave, who rounds up the trilogy of musical troublemakers on this album along with Trent Reznor and Fiona Apple. Nick, however, is the most likely choice to accompany Cash on an album, as he is also a devout Christian, former slave to drugs, and musical maverick within his genre, and the man throws out an amazing murder ballad, not to mention Cash had previously covered a Nick Cave song with “The Mercy Seat” from American III (and Cave has covered Cash on occasion). The other reason why this pairing is perfect is because “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is one of the saddest songs ever written, and was possibly the catalyst for the first instance of cowboys crying back in the 50′s, and Johnny Cash and Nick Cave’s back-and-forth delivery could very well be the voices of two old cowboys trying to out-do each other in sadness:
Cash: Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry
Cave: I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide its face and cry
Cash: Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die
That means hes lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry
Can you kind of see the competition underlining the duet? It’s almost funny, when you think about it. Of course, both men come together, possibly with their arms around each others’ shoulders, as they sing the last verse together, in harmony:
The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry
An interesting experience I had with this song was in Austin, at the Red Eyed Fly, where, after a show that my band played, my friend invited me to pick a song on the jukebox to play while we were sitting around doing nothing. I picked this song, and sure enough, when it came on, despite there being no protests in the bar at all (there were only 3 other people in there who seemed like regulars), the bar-employee turned it off, citing that it was “too sad” and that “people didn’t want to hear it”. I guess he sure figured out that the only people in the bar, who had paid to hear the song on a jukebox which has the song available to play, sure hate that sad stuff. Oh well, the guy was stupid and will hopefully burn in Hell, but that brings up a solid testimony to the song’s mood: it’s too sad to be played in a place where people drink and listen to Country music.
Johnny Cash probably knew this about the song, so the next song is another “zinger” of a tune, “Tear-Stained Letter”, which Cash himself wrote back in the 70′s for an album I have never heard because it never came out on CD (though that hasn’t stopped me before). It’s a great song about the singer being rejected and promising to write a letter to his lost love that will be so intense that the singer “only hope it doesn’t make you go down suicide”. It’s a witty song, and I’m glad it’s on here, especially when one considers the theme of impending doom on the album; this song is more of a celebration of life, of not wanting to give in to despair, but to fight back against it, even if it’s just to be dramatic about a breakup.
Nearing the end of this album, we get a moving version of a second song from Sings The Ballads Of The True West in “Streets Of Laredo”. Now, I typically poke a little bit of fun at this song’s inclusion in the album, because it’s so close, lyrically, to “Give My Love To Rose”. In both songs, someone is walking by, minding his own business, when a dying man breathes out his needlessly complicated requests and takes enough time doing it that the singer could have just as easily gone to find medical attention and saved everyone the trouble (a third song that follows this formula is “O, Bury Me Not” which Cash covered in American Recordings). I don’t fault the song, however, it’s one of my favorites, even if the burial instructions stated by the cowboy seem a bit excessive:
Get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin
Six dance-hall maidens to bear up my pall
Throw bunches of roses all over my coffin
Roses to deaden the clods as they fall
Then beat the drum slowly, play the Fife lowly
Play the dead march as you carry me along
Take me to the green valley, lay the sod o’er me
I’m a young cowboy and I know I’ve done wrong
Unlike the other songs, wherein the singer either blatantly ignores the requests (“O, Bury Me Not”) or its mischievously possible to interpret that he just took off with the guy’s money and ran (“Give My Love To Rose”), the song explicitly states that the cowboy’s wishes were granted, and to me, that represents Johnny Cash’s satisfaction at having been able to release so much amazing music before his own time. Indeed I hope Cash got his six jolly cowboys to carry his coffin.
Finally, as a final farewell from Cash while still alive, we are treated to another standard, a WWII-era jazz tune called “We’ll Meet Again”. The song was originally written with the intent of being sung to soldiers who were being deployed to fight one of the greatest wars of the past centuries, as a sign of optimism that they’ll someday see their loved ones again. Of course, the actual words:
We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when
But I’m sure we’ll meet again some sunny day
…convey a meaning that the person might not make it back, and that the unspecified meeting place and time will be Heaven, and for eternity. The song is plucky and light, but sung by Johnny Cash in the final years (nay, months) of his life lends it a bittersweet meaning, simultaneously beautiful and heart-breaking. However, Cash had accepted his fate so long ago, that an upbeat song like this (with a clarinet solo, no less) is a brilliant send-off to someone who was genuinely happy with his life and the people who love him. To add weight to this acknowledgment of love, a whole multitude of voices join Cash on the final repetition of the chorus, singing in tandem, with no harmonies, and the group is credited in the liner notes as “The Whole Cash Gang”.
Indeed, if there is a God and a Heaven, that is where we’ll surely find Johnny Cash someday, singing like he always did. Cash left this world a little less than a year after this album was released, but not before recording yet another album under the strictest of time limits, and indeed our story with Johnny Cash is nowhere near done on Album Du Jour. I just want to take this opportunity to appreciate, as best I can, an album that came to my attention far too late for me to have been able to see Cash in person, as this was the first album that truly brought me in as a fan of Johnny Cash, and not just of his music. Thanks, John, for making such wonderful music.