Johnny Cash - American IV: The Man Comes Around
As the final album that he recorded before his death in 2003, Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around features Cash, his voice having faded a little from its hellraising best, calling down fire and brimestone in a look back over his life. Whether temptation became hard to resist or he remembers when his faith left him for a moment, the fifteen songs here are testament to Cash having been one of the great American artists.
The album opens with Cash reading from the book of Revelations and, with an accompanying set of photographs showing a makeshift recording booth laying around a church pew, American IV: The Man Comes Around beginnings by playing up the damnation and salvation more than even the black-hearted themes of I See A Darkness and The Mercy Seat from American III: Solitary Man. Yet, by the time Cash offers a gentle recording of Danny Boy, his weary voice lets the album become a mirror held up to his own life, looking back at his early, wild years, his finding of love with June Carter and his wilful recording of a series of classic albums with those he continued, in his own inimitable way, to describe as the, "long-haired element".
The title song - the first on the album - blends the Old Testament with Cash's, "It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks" before his justly famous cover of Nine Inch Nails' Hurt. Where Trent Reznor always tended to fall over the line that separated credibility and pastiche, unlike, say, Ministry's Al Jourgenson, Johnny Cash's voice brings real experience to the line, "I hurt myself today / To see if I still feel" before the song builds to an elegiac chorus, wherein Cash sings, "And you could have it all, my empire of dirt / I will bring you down, I will make you hurt". Unlike Reznor's attempts at sleaze, Cash brings the power of a long, full life to bear on the lyrics and despite a long record of great songs, Hurt stands out as one of Cash's best.
Yet, where The Man Comes Around works better than two of its predecessors and just as well as American III: Solitary Man is in never fading away from an early peak. After the chills of Hurt, Give My Love To Rose, which was written, like the title track and the later Tear Stained Letter, by Cash, is a cracked ballad, recorded by Rick Rubin in such a way that it sounds as though it came out of a great folk tradition, much like this album's Danny Boy and Streets Of Laredo.
Where The Man Comes Around is revelatory, however, is in Cash's recording of Sting's I Hung My Head, which is as good a cover as Hurt. Featuring a lyric that sees Cash on the run from the law, which is as bleak as the earlier Cocaine Blues was riotously funny, it's remarkable for being one of the best songs here, so much so that Sting's writing credit is astonishing. Indeed, such is the quality of the song that it is quite capable of standing alongside both The Long Black Veil and When It's Springtime In Alaska (It's Forty Below), both of which are available on the Love God Murder boxset.
Other songs of note on the album are the recordings of Ewan MacColl's The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face, Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus and Cash's arrangement of the traditional Sam Hall, the latter two add a cranky saloon-bar piano that rolls behind fat acoustic chords. Slower and more tender, but no less welcome, is Danny Boy, which, like Willie Nelson's stunning recording of Amazing Grace, shows that a simple arrangement can often reveal the beauty behind an already familiar song. In a similar vein, there is Cash's wonderful recording of The Eagles' Desperado, which strips away Frey and Henley's rich instrumentation.
Finally, there is We'll Meet Again, now revealed as the last song on the last Johnny Cash album to be released in his lifetime. It is unknown whether Cash was aware of the place that this song had in the UK between 1939 and 1945, where it was used to offer hope to the families at home and the young conscripts abroad but it ends this last album with a nod towards Cash's faith, saying that whether in this life or the next, Cash will be together with his friends, fans and, most importantly, his family.
American IV: The Man Comes Around is a graceful set of songs, albeit one with the occasional misstep, which shows that Cash still had sufficient fight and talent left in him to record a genuine classic. Despite his failing health, Johnny Cash, with his last album, continued to demonstrate his ability to put his entire life into song and for that, amongst so many other reasons, The Man In Black will be greatly missed.