|Posted by BigBlackHatMan on September 21, 2012 at 11:10 AM|
Country Sounds: Johnny Cash’s American IV The Man Comes Around
In the year 2002, I was a sophomore in college and thought of myself as someone who was becoming the ultimate Johnny Cash fan. Of course, I was delusional. I had not even heard of the American Recordings series at that point despite its popularity with the press since I was kind of stuck in main stream music. Luckily, Wal-Mart, which is about the only store in many of the small towns in Nebraska, was selling American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around. I was excited by the prospect of new music by the legend and quickly picked it up.
I got the album back to my dorm and gave it a listen. It was brilliant. The tone ranged from sad to joyful and depressing to uplifting. The rest of the American Recordings quickly found their way into my possession, and I have been devoted to the series of albums ever since. It took me a few articles, but I finally get to talk about the first one I listened to. Without further ado, let us look at Johnny Cash’s American Recording IV: The Man Comes Around.
The album opens with title track “The Man Comes Around.” For those who have been reading these articles, you are aware many of the songs from the American Recordings set are taken from other sources or earlier in Cash’s career. This is a first time recording. The song reflects what has been and will become a stronger religious theme throughout the American Recordings series. Cash was a very devote man, and the music is a reflection of the man. “The Man Comes Around” takes portions of Revelations to remind people that they will pay for their sins in a Christian interpretation. It is a catchy tune and enjoyable with Cash bookending the music with direct quotes sounding like they came off an old record.
Track two is the one almost everyone knows. Johnny Cash lost his wife June in early 2003, and he passed away later in the same year. The last video he released was for this song, “Hurt,” and it featured both Cash and his wife. It was also very nostalgic as there were many images of the Cash history. It was a perfect final video in many ways. Of course, the song is really good to. The song has a lot of references to religion again and Cash’s faith. It is vastly different from the original version recorded by Nine Inch Nails, and song writer Trent Reznor hesitated to let Cash record it, but admitted to being moved by Cash’s version. For my money, Cash did the superior version. He put so much emotion into it that if you are not moved by this song, you are dead inside.
The third track is a Cash classic. “Give My Love to Rose” was first recorded back in 1960 on a great Cash album Sings Hank Williams. Cash must have had a real attachment to this song. It appeared on several of his live albums and was on two more studio albums before appearing here. It is a great song. Though this is a good version, if I had to pick a favorite version, it would be off the Live from Folsom Prison album.
Track four is the Simon and Garfunkel classic “Bridge over Troubled Water.” Cash does a good rendition of the song and is backed up by the smooth voice of Fiona Apple. It fits in with a lot of the religion on the album. I want to say that I really like this version of the song but not necessarily more than the original version by the talented Simon and Garfunkel. I would like to say that I have known a few people who were turned off by the heavy Christian themes of Johnny Cash, and I understand that, but would like to counter. I think even if you do not have a belief in religion or Christianity, a person can have an appreciation for how emotional and spiritual the music is. That is just my two cents.
Track five is a remake of a Sting song, “I Hung My Head.” The song tells a story through the singer about accidently killing a man while practicing with a rifle. He lives with the deep regret until hung for the murder. The end does have an implication of redemption. Cash does a good job on this on continuing the emotional and spiritual themes of the album. I will say that I like Sting’s version, but prefer Cash. The YouTube comments on the videos would make you think you have to be one or the other, but trust me, they are both good songs.
The sixth track is a love song originally written for the folk genre. However, it did not initially become a hit when it came out in the late 1950s. It was not until Robert Flack took up “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” that it became a major hit. It worked really well as a passionate love song and that is how Cash delivers it. He does a good job and appeals to anyone who has ever been at least infatuated. To put it simply, it is a solid track in the middle of the album.
Track seven comes from Depeche Mode, who I admit I knew nothing about before this song. They are an electronic music band from the UK and had a hit with this song, “Personal Jesus.” The theme of the song goes along with Johnny Cash’s spiritual theme for the album, so it is easy to see how it made it onto the album. I will admit that I have heard the original version and am not a big fan as I am not into electronic music. Cash turns it more into the rockabilly style he was known for, and I think it really works.
The eighth track comes from the Beatles. “In My Life” probably is not one of the fab four’s better known singles, but it is a really good one. Cash does not really surpass the original version and may even not quite equal it. But, he is up against the Beatles here. I enjoy both versions, so there really is not much to say other than it is a solid entry on the album.
Track nine is…weird. Most of the songs on the album are personal songs about spirituality, individualism, and emotional themes. “Sam Hall” is a Tex Ritter song that is sort of humorous in a very dark way. The titular character Sam Hall is about to be hung, and rather than show remorse, Hall decides to tell everyone and everything to go straight to hell. This was not the first time Cash sang this song as he did back in 1960. This version is good. It just feels a little out of place on the album. It does have a slight religious theme, but it is vague and kind of angry. Enjoy it, but know how it does not fit in that well.
Track ten is “Danny Boy.” Cash decided to give his version of the Irish classic that has been sung by almost everyone. It does not break new ground in any way. It is good and fits in to the tone. Not much to say, just enjoy it as part of the album.
The eleventh track is a remake of The Eagles hit “Desperado.” The Eagles have an interesting place in country music history as they were never officially considered part of the genre but had a major influence on it. They had many fans amongst the major players of country music. Cash was among them and apparently Don Henley of The Eagles was a fan of Cash because he does back-up vocals on this track. That is a major reason this song works so well as Cash adds his voice that does a lonesome tone so well. Henley hits many of the high notes that were a little beyond Cash with his aging voice. I would not call it better than the original, but it is an excellent version of “Desperado.” (If anyone is curious, I do like the well-known Clint Black remake as well and consider this one par with that.)
Track twelve comes from Hank Williams. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” has become a standard of country music, and this is not the first time Cash recorded the prominent Hank Williams song. A little known fact about the song is that it was never a hit for anyone. The producers believed it was too sad and never pushed it as a single for Williams. Most people who have recorded it since have done it as a B track. So, in spite of the song’s renown, it never held a high position on the billboard. This version is solid and fits in with much of the melancholy tone of the second half of the album.
The thirteenth track is a Cash original from the early 1970s. “Tear Stained Letter” is your basic break up song. The tune here is a little upbeat which is a little out of place, but the theme gets it back in. To be honest, this is not the best version of this song. I would recommend going back to Cash’s earlier recordings on this one, but if you do not have that point of reference, it is still a really good song.
Track fourteen is the old cowboy song, “Streets of Laredo.” Though this song has been done my multiple artists, including my favorite modern cowboy crooners, The Diamond W Wranglers, the most famous version was probably done by Marty Robbins. Cash had done this song as well in the mid-1960s. Unlike “Tear Stained Letter,” I prefer this version. “Streets of Laredo” is a sad song of death, and Cash really captures that longing and frustration in this version of the song. The song has almost all the themes of the album of loneliness, spirituality, and melancholy. It would have been a great closing song, except…
Track fifteen is the final track and a remake of the Vera Lynn hit “We’ll Meet Again.” Under normal circumstances, it would have been an average song, but the release of this album as the last one during Cash’s life gives it a little different meaning. When I found out about his death, this was the song I listened to. After an album with so many reminders of death and loss, it is good to have this upbeat track to comfort people with the idea that death is not the end. Whether you believe that or not, the thought makes a person feel better. It was appropriate after the death of June and then again after the death of Johnny. For those reasons, it is the perfect final track.
My opinions on this album are incredibly biased. As I said in the opening, it introduced me to the great American Recordings series, and I must have listened to this album thirty or forty times over the years. I see the flaws as Cash’s voice was getting weak and some of the remakes are not as good as the originals, but it has such a great feel, especially being the last album released during the man’s lifetime. I am sort of an unabashed fanboy on this one. That probably is not the best confession for a critic, but I want to be honest.
Well, that wraps up my thoughts on American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around. Join me next time when I review the first album in the American Recordings released after Cash’s death, American Recording V: A Hundred Highways. Happy trails and watch out for those rough patches.