Album review

Johnny Cash :
American IV: The Man Comes Around

American / Lost Highway

Johnny Cash : American IV: The Man Comes AroundI'm embarrassed to say that my only previous exposure to Johnny Cash - at least as far as I can recall - was Ring Of Fire. The guy's sold in excess of 50 million records and I only know one of his songs. Hmmm. Okay, in my defence, Cash has always meant far more in the US than in dear old Blighty, but with a CD collection that spans Elvis to Extreme Noise Terror it is a bit of a conspicuous gap. Never too late to sort out though . . .
    American IV: The Man Comes Around is (as its name suggests) the fourth in an on-going series of CDs mixing the odd Cash original with an eclectic choice of covers. Add a sprinkling of guest musicians and spiritual guidance from Rick Rubin and you've got a winning formula. Previous outings have had The Man In Black tackling songs by Leonard Cohen, Soundgarden and U2, with help from the likes of Tom Petty, Sheryl Crow and the Chili Peppers' Flea. That's pretty damn heavyweight in my book.

Cash's own The Man Comes Around kicks off American IV, and the combination of Cash's uniquely lived-in vocals with lyrics inspired by the book of Revelation is a potent combination. For all its weighty subject matter, The Man Comes Around is actually one of this CD's more upbeat tracks.
    For a glimpse of the sort of creeping claustrophobia Cash is really capable of, you need look no further than the cover of Nine Inch Nails' Hurt. Possibly my favourite Nails song - certainly one of their most atmospheric - and Johnny Cash effortlessly makes it his own. I played it at the end of the night at a rock club and the amount of people who came up asking who it was proves it's not only me . . .
    Even with Fiona Apple to back you up, you've got to be a crazy man to attempt something as seminal as Bridge Over Troubled Water, especially when your cracked and world-weary vocals are the polar opposite to Simon & Garfunkel's fragile brilliance. It works though. Maybe not the first time you hear it, but after three or four spins it's another Cash song, pure and simple.
    Apparently I Hung My Head was penned by Sting, but in all probability it was the song Johnny Cash was born to sing. Check this out: "I saw a lone rider, crossing the plain. I drew a bead on him, to practice my aim. My brother's rifle went off in my hand, a shot rang out across the land. The horse he kept running, the rider was dead. I hung my head, I hung my head." In the hands of another I Hung My Head would be a country cliché, but here its tale of regret is totally absorbing.
    The other real gem here is a version of Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus. Now let's get this in perspective: I count Depeche Mode as one of my two favourite bands of all time. Whether they're better actually better than The Ramones is something I've never been sure about, so it's a split decision. The point is you do not mess with a Depeche Mode song unless you know what you're doing. Personal Jesus gets added to the short list of DM covers that have actually worked - which means some company for The Smashing Pumpkins and The Wannadies.

Some of the song choices I could have probably done without. I don't really relish Johnny singing Danny Boy or We'll Meet Again, but as a whole this is a very accomplished set. Hearing Johnny Cash rework familiar tunes so effectively on The Man Comes around is probably a better introduction to the power of his voice than an album full of originals.
    And don't make the mistake in thinking that you'll only like this if you like country music. While Cash is known as a country artist, American IV: The Man Comes Around is definitely not country music. It is however, quality music.

:: Rowan Shaeffer

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