This was in a series which ran in 2010/11 entitled ‘Five Great Album Tracks For Friday’
This was Part 18 and it appeared on Friday 8 April 2011.
Today’s piece was inspired by something I read in a newspaper supplement last weekend.
Graeme Thomson is one of the best writers around in the UK – a regular contributor to many of the monthly music mags as well as popping up across many newspapers. In last Saturday’s Arts Section of The Herald, he was given space to plug a forthcoming book, one that I intend to buy on its release on 15 April.
Thomson has written about Johnny Cash. But he’s done so from a perspective that is unusual and one with which I can readily identify. He recalls that growing up, Cash was a voice he heard regularly thanks to his parents love of him. And while it was a voice he loved, it wasn’t one that he thought would ever deliver new material that would be worth listening to….until 1993 when Cash teamed up with Rick Rubin to release American Recordings.
Thomson’s book is a a look at the final series of albums Johnny Cash made in the final decade of his life. As he puts it in the article “to examine what happens when rebels don’t die young but are forced to keep on living, wrestling with their demons and the very human indignities of ill health, indifference and old age.”
I’m a big fan of the work Cash and Rubin delivered. I’ve never quite been able to pin down why, but something Thomson wrote last Saturday nailed it:-
Although these albums play consistently with Cash’s brooding image and sense of mythology – chiming neatly with the uncompromising mood of the mid-1990s’ most successful genres : grunge rap and metal – they also bring the real man closer than ever before. At the time of their initial release, however, much of their impact rested on the obvious novelty of an ageing country singer covering songs by contemporary artists like Soundgarden, Danzig and Nick Cave.
Nearly eight years on since Cash’s death – and over a year since the release of Ain’t No Grave, the sixth and final instalment of American Recordings – it’s easier to free the art from the context of its creation and see that albums for what they really are : the logical destination of Cash’s long black train of music.
It all makes sense now. It’s the really early Cash and the really late Cash that I love the most. The early stuff is raw with just the basic instruments and THAT voice. American Recordings are much the same.
And so here’s my five personal favourites from the American Recordings set of records. And for once, I’m including tracks released as singles…..:-
mp3 : Johnny Cash – Delia’s Gone (from American Recordings 1993)
mp3 : Johnny Cash – One (from American III : Solitary Man 2000)
mp3 : Johnny Cash – I See A Darkness (from American III : Solitary Man 2000)
mp3 : Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around (from American IV : The Man Comes Around 2003)
mp3 : Johnny Cash – Hurt (from American IV : The Man Comes Around 2003)
This wasn’t an easy set of songs to choose. The fact that only three out of the six albums weighs a bit with me. But these are the five songs I love more than the others.
Delia’s Gone was released as a single. The 1993 version updated a version that Cash had recorded back in 1962. The original was Cash with a band and is atypical of the sound that made him so popular in the first place. The update was audacious as it was just Cash and his guitar – as indeed was all of the 1993 LP – and as an opening track it made you just sit up and take notice.
By the time Unchained, the second of the series, was released in 1995, there were a number of collaborators and a backing band. By 2000 and American III : Solitary Man, there were all sorts of folk wanting to pay homage by sharing the vocals. And nobody did it better than Will Oldham whose stunning record of its own that was just over a year old was turned into an all-time classic. I dare anyone to listen to I See A Darkness and not hold back the tears….
The other song taken from the 2000 LP is a U2 cover. I know not everyone who visits TVV is a fan of Bono & co, but even if they are an act that you detest with a passion, I urge you to listen to Cash’s cover of One and hear how he makes it his very own.
American IV : When The Man Comes Around is in parts the very best of the entire series but in other parts contains some of the most disappointing covers – I just can’t bring myself to listen to his take on Danny Boy or We’ll Meet Again. However, the opening two songs on this LP are among the best things Johnny Cash ever recorded in his entire career.
The title track was a new song. One that Cash freely admits he spent more time on than any other that he ever wrote. He ended up with more than 30 pages of lyrics that he weeded out until the edited and recorded version was ready. For a song so much about death and the end of his world, it is an incredibly upbeat and uplifting, almost spiritual tune.
Then there’s his take on Hurt. The original by Nine Inch Nails has long had folk arguing what exactly it is all about, with self-mutilation, drug abuse and self-loathing being among the suggestions. The Cash version, helped by an astonishing promo video, left you in doubt that this was a man recording his own highly moving epitaph:-