After claiming victory in yet another twelve-round slugfest with Lucifer himself, the Man in Black has returned to the realm of the living to deliver American IV: The Man Comes Around
, the latest chapter in his ongoing collaboration with producer/American Recordings CEO Rick Rubin, and the continuation of the second phase of his illustrious and all-but-unparalleled career.
At this point, to merely claim that Johnny Cash can do, make, say, think or feel whatever he wants is not only an understatement, but a flat-out insult to one of America's living music legends. A member of both the Rock 'n' Roll and Country Music Halls of Fame, Cash is the man who made country music accessible for mass consumption without sacrificing his own credibility; he's revered by crusty punk rockers, winsome folkies and twang-happy troubadours alike.
Like its predecessors, American IV offers an enthralling mix of Cash originals, selected and unexpected covers and fresh arrangements of traditional material. "The Man Comes Around", the new Cash tune that opens the disc, sets the scene perfectly: it's ominously barren, thoughtfully meditative and religious without being preachy. It's also one of the best songs Cash has ever committed to tape -- which, for a man whose recording career has lasted the better part of five decades, is nothing to scoff at.
The covers this time out are exquisite, carefully chosen and painstakingly rendered. Cash's version of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" replaces the original's split wires and whirring keyboards with foreboding ambience and sparse accompaniment from Billy Preston, John Frusciante and Smokey Hormel, topped with Cash's own barrel-chested baritone. Bona fide classics like "Bridge over Troubled Water" (Paul Simon), "Desperado" (Eagles) and "In My Life" (Beatles) also receive the Cash treatment; he wrings every last drop of solitude, misfortune and grace from their familiar facades. Cash's version of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is made all the more desolate by Nick Cave's backing vocals, but the absolute coupe de gras of this set is Cash's rendering of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" -- a slow-motion reading that strips the song to its barest components (acoustic guitar/piano/organ) and creeps unhurriedly towards a climax that delivers far more heartfelt anguish than the original.
American IV also includes new Cash originals -- the title track and "Tear-Stained Letter" -- as well as a newly-recorded version of concert favorite "Give My Love to Rose" and a new arrangement of "Danny Boy". These compositions do nothing to tarnish Cash's reputation as one of the finest singer/songwriters in the history of popular music; he's at the height of his powers here, as vital and relevant as ever.