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9,103 out of 10,000

The Man in Black’s releases are becoming musical events. Certainly the first in this series, American Recordings, released in 1994,is the best, and an American classic, but this is still a very fine Johnny Cash record, which says a lot.

The variety and freshness of Cash’s tastes were brought to light on American Recordings, which included Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On a Wire” and Louden Wainwright’s “The Man Who Wouldn’t Cry” alongside his own compositions. The covers grew zanier, yet somehow appropriate on Unbound (which I’m assuming is American II, though the trilogy only becomes apparent now), a record that included "Rowboat" by Beck, and an excellent treatment of Soundgarden’s "Rusty Cage”, alongside songs popularized by Jimmie Rodgers and Dean Martin.

Here, you can get disappointed with his spoken version of U2’s “One”, but it’s more a testament to the fine vocal performance Bono invested in that fine song. Soon enough you accept Cash’s matter-of-fact take on “One”, though it would have been sweet to hear him slowly wrap his bass moan around the melody a little more.

You could also differ with his elevation of Tom Petty to the class of Major American Songwriters. Cash performed Petty’s “Southern Accents” on Unbound, as well as having Petty and the Heartbreakers back him on that album. Now, Solitary Man opens with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne’s “I Won’t Back Down”. What before sounded like a fairly trite single off a middling solo album now rings with conviction. When Cash sings “You can stand me up at the gates of Hell / But I won’t back down”, you can see the gates of Hell, and smell the determination. Can Cash make the telephone book sound good? Or did Jeff Lynne’s horrible production drain the original version song of its true gusto? The truth is, it’s a fine song, even if Petty’s really lucky about who he gets to hang out with, and Jeff Lynne brings me down, Bruce. Rick Rubin, conversely, provides Solitary Man with his sparse production of impeccable taste.

The title track redeems Neil Diamond, a great songwriter whose image has been in need of burnishing. It would be great to see Diamond reclaim some glory, as Cash has in the last decade. Having the Darkly Clad Gentleman sing “Solitary Man” is a start. Of course, eventually Diamond is going to have to turn on his own heartlight.

The high point of American III is the Ebony-Attired Fellow’s take on Will Oldham’s “I See a Darkness”. This song captures a pain and a hope like no other. Cash sings, “You know I have a love, a love for every one I know.” Clearly Cash does, be it for old friends, prison inmates, or the “Country Trash” he lauds on his self-penned song of the same name. That warmth rumbles in the laughter of his voice and informs his liner notes, which are a delight to read. “But,” Cash warns on Oldham’s song, “can you see its opposition? / Comes rising up sometimes…and then I see a darkness”. It is this darkness that Cash has never been willing to hide, and it is his honesty in this respect, as he battles for the good, that makes him great, as does his hope “that you can save me from this darkness.”

The Guy With the Inky Threads has a take at Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” that is spellbinding. I’ve never heard the original, but you can just imagine Cave’s arty groan overenunciating every word. Cash’s weary bass gives the song dignity, putting him in prison, about to die once again, and it never sounds old. Capital punishment is evil.

Another evil is recounted in “Mary of the Wild Moor”. The total devastation told of here reminds us just how weird and horrifying old country tunes used to be. The impassive father, the wayward daughter, the unforgiving destruction of a household - all parties, down to the soil. It’s hard to believe that this form has devolved into glossy hooks and bad wordplay about nothing.

Cash’s own songs, while lacking some of the fire of his interpretations of those of others, provide a much-needed lightness for balance. “Country Trash” and “Before My Time” look back gladly on Cash’s youth and love before he was born. Sheryl Crow joins June Carter as they sing on the poetic rumination “Field of Diamonds”. The nicest moment is when Merle Haggard joins the Ravenly Dudded Dude on “I’m Leaving Now”. The joy they have singing together is rarely so well captured on tape. I’m reminded somehow of Cash and Dylan on “North Country Fair”. “Adios!” shouts Cash. “Me too!” Haggard rejoins.

On the American Trilogy record Johnny Cash channels all the repentant sinners of the world. Cash’s voice laughs as it moans, redeemed yet still in hell, soaring high from way down low. As far as conversion through modern electronic mediums goes, I would venture to say that more people have come to God through listening to Johnny Cash records than through all the televangelists combined. And it’s a better version of God.

 

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