I realise I said I'd write about Johnny Cash at Christmas, but you know how these things go - Christmas, New Year, work work work, summer away from the computer. Still, nine months isn't too bad.
Cash's late career resurgence was thanks to musical mastermind Rick Rubin, who rediscovered the icon in eclipse. Dozens of years after heroin and Folsom prison, the man in black had retired into country-western obscurity when Rubin felt like undertaking a resurrection. The result was the phenomenal merican series of recordings, five albums (so far) of mixed material - Cash's own songs and a wide variety from other sources.
The series really started to have an impact on the musical consciousness with American III: Solitary Man. Here Cash darts between his own back catalogue (Field of Diamonds, Before My Time) and others' hits, where surprise is just part of the pleasure; you might have expected Neil Diamond's 'Solitary Man', but U2's 'One' or Nick Cave's 'Mercy Seat'? Instead of staying in Nashville, there is nowhere Cash and Rubin won't go, with elemental results.
The same is true for American IV: The Man Comes Around, whose choice of songs if anything is richer and more varied still. Juxtapose Nine Inch Nails' 'Hurt' with 'Sam Hall', Depeche Mode's 'Personal Jesus' with World War II stand-by 'We'll Meet Again'. All this is via The Beatles' 'In My Life' (possibly the most moving record I know) and Roberta Flack's 'First Time Ever I Saw Your Face'.
Every song is freshly interpreted, stripped down, rough hewn. There is no glossy production to take away the edge on Cash's voice - that would defeat the object. What Rubin gives us is an old hand in his declining years whose voice bears all the marks of his life. The gravel and grit of his tone make both the songs and the singing poignant.
Often the songs are about death, dying, farewells and a bientots, which seems not just realistic but necessary. This does not make the albums gloomy, for there are plenty of up-beat strummers, but it gives a cap to Cash's lengthy career, showing a wise retrospection rather than a grab at youth (Paul Anka, anyone?). Hearing Cash yell 'damn your eyes!' in 'Sam Hall' or be defiant in 'I Won't Back Down' shows that there's life left yet.
One of the benefits of hearing others' songs in Cash's dessicated twang is that he brings out new layers in them. Neil Diamond was practically still in diapers when he sang 'Solitary Man' - he was a young man with a life of love ahead of him; Cash, on the other hand, lost his wife June during the American sessions. The same goes for 'In My Life', which I have always felt too upbeat in its original version - it never seemed truly cheerful.
Sometimes the songs are given panoramic production: 'Mercy Seat' has thundering pianos competing with one another and 'The Man Comes Around' is Apocalyptic in every sense. But more often than not, you just hear Cash, his guitar and his hurt.