Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Must Have

American Recordings of Johnny Cash, American Records, Produced by Rick Rubin, 1994 - 2003

Just before he died, Johnny Cash replaced Hank Williams as country music’s lifetime achievement god. This happened as a direct result of Cash’s career salvation at the hands of producer Rick Rubin. Creatively at an ebb, stuck in a rut, Cash’s career seemed to be winding down when he was cut from his penultimate label, Columbia, and seemed relegated to end his days repeating a schtick and performing at a variety of smaller and smaller live venues. Rubin, a long-time fan of the Man in Black, called Johnny and proposed they record an album together stripped of everything save the voice and the guitar. Johnny agreed, and the rest, as they say, is fucking history.

And what a history it is. The first album, American Recordings, was a best-selling Grammy winner and featured what became the hallmark of Rubin and Cash’s collaboration: re-recordings of some of Cash’s favorites of his own tunes, gospel songs Cash loved, and a selection of contemporary songs unlikely to have been previously associated with Johnny Cash or country music for that matter. Which is how we get such transforming, chilling songs as Cash’s cover of Nick Cave’s “The Beast in Me” and Danzig’s “Thirteen.” This first album also includes a cover of one of Tom Waits’ best unrecorded songs “Down There by the Train.”

In order not to fall into a trap of repeating solo guitar and voice albums, Rubin brought in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to serve as back up to Johnny for his follow up, Unchained, and they stayed for the remainder of the career. This was a good move on one hand, but on the other, I can’t quite understand how using the same back up band for four albums is more innovative or predictable than sticking with the original formula. Nevertheless, the introduction of organ and steel pedal guitars never hurt country music none, and it doesn’t hurt any on the second album, where Cash tackles a track from Beck’s early, much more country days, “Rowboat,” the heavy metal song “Rusty Cage,” and a Heartbreakers’ track “Southern Accent.”

Solitary Man, their third collaborative effort features a second Heartbreaker’s hit, “I Won’t Back Down” along with a number of other magnificent tunes. Cash’s cover of Bonnie “Prince” Billie’s “I See a Darkness” demolishes the original, as he does in so many of his other covers. What’s striking about this one is that Wil Oldham himself sings back up, his reedy thin voice piping around Johnny’s rumbling bass volcano. It’s strange for the original artist to sing along in a cover that is so majestically superior to the original, like a cuckold circling the ensemened bed proffering to help lift or move the bodies. Oddly enough, despite all that, Oldham’s higher voice is a perfect wailing desperation inside of Cash’s resigned basso bitterness.

This track is followed by the towering “The Mercy Seat” Cash’s second cover of a Nick Cave song. Like “The Beast in Me,” Cash takes this dark tale and makes it completely his own in such a fashion that it’s hard to imagine the song being anyone else’s. I’ve tried hard to get into Nick Cave and Cash’s selection proves that the man can write good music, but there’s just something about Cave’s particular voice and delivery that irks me. It’s almost too self-consciously deep and dark, then there’s the consistency of his work, also deep and dark. What makes Cash’s dark songs so compelling, apart from themselves, is how they’re bracketed throughout the material with love songs and hymns and gospel numbers. It’s the glimpses of light that make darkness even more unbearable. Cave is like singing in a sensory deprivation tank. How much worse can it get?

On the fourth album, the much-touted number is Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails hit “Hurt.” This song works like a textbook example of two songs, using the same lyrics, getting two divergent readings both valid. The line that sums this up for me both is “You can have it all, my empire of dirt / I will let you down, I will make you hurt.” In NIN’s reading, there’s almost a pride in degradation. The empire of dirt is seedy and needle tracked; there’s a self-satisfactory quality to it. In Cash’s rendition, it’s almost as if he’s pointing to the commonest element, demonstrating the valueless quality of what he’s achieved. Fresh strength is added to the line reading of “everyone I know / goes away in the end.” As a young man singing this, Reznor sounds like the kind of person who offends others and drives them from him; the older Cash’s rendering is tinged with the sorrow of one who’s seen so many of his friends die, the spirit of death hovering over the song. This same quality endues the cover of Lennon’s “In My Life” with a heavy melancholy, a reflective old man’s look back replacing the young man’s perhaps too early reflection.

This last official album, When the Man Comes Around, opens with the title song, one Johnny described as having taken years to write and having originally consisted of more than twenty pages of verses. Less successful than Wil Oldham in a duet is Don Henley’s falsetto as he joins Cash on The Eagles cornball hit “Desperado.” This accompaniment smacks either of desperation (“gotta get a track down before he dies” or “maybe this will revive my career too”) or of chance. With a pointless Fiona Apple backup vocal, Cash’s cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” could fit right into Cash’s gospel repertoire, such a moving hymnal quality he gives it despite Apple’s distracting hormonal caterwauling. Likewise churched up are the traditional “Danny Boy” which is one of the finest songs regardless of who’s covering it. When the album ends with a rousing full cast and crew “We’ll Meet Again,” it’s almost enough to choke you with tears, the perfect summation of how you feel at the end of a Johnny Cash record. This ain’t over.

What the American Recordings demonstrate wonderfully is how much a repository of song Cash really was, how much he could absorb and put out as instant classics. Old jazz standards and traditional folk songs, R&B, heavy metal numbers, sixties rock, his own catalog, Cash and Rubin picked over what amounts to a great American song book leaving out just about only rap from the list (which probably in and of itself would have been a triumph large enough to unhinge the planet from its axis) and put out some of the best albums in any genre of the last years.

Not content with four albums of what will stand as lasting testimony and what might never be surpassed in quality, Rubin poured through his immense recordings of Johnny for one last peak behind the curtain. The boxed set Unearthed is filled with curiosities, some tracks being complete and studio filled out like “Redemption” with Joe Strummer, while others like “Singer of Songs” have Cash and the musicians chatting afterwards, asking if the sound levels are all right. This gives the box set a pleasing unbalanced quality that is both intimate and professional. Too many home recording enthusiasts provide you with nothing but rough edges, as though that were testament to their authenticity. Likewise, a thorough studio polishing can rub out the pure artistry in the spontaneity of a track.

There are a number of tracks like “Wichita Lineman” that are pure loveliness musically, but Cash’s voice is weaker there which explains the box set’s inclusion instead of an album appearance. As a rule, the typical box set purchaser is a bit more forgiving than the album fan, the box set aficionado loving the dig and slog through multiple versions, false starts, and behind-the-scenes chatter. “Cindy,” Cash’s collaboration in the studio with Nick Cave who’d gotten the Cash treatment twice before, is a revelation of how someone with a voice similar in style can sing so nicely together.

For those who consider “You Are My Sunshine” a children’s song, as it is often rendered, I urge you to sit down instantly with either Cash’s rendition here or Ray Charles’ divinely lugubrious, sorrowful version. It is a mournful song with a plaintive chorus, not celebratory. The injustice done to this song mirrors what was done to a same era cry for equality, “This Land is Your Land.” Both songs were defanged and made into pap for the masses. What children’s song includes such lines as “shattered all my dreams” as does “Sunshine”?

In what can only be divine serendipity, this track is followed by this atheist’s favorite religious song “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” While I don’t ever turn back and see one track of footprints in the sand, etc. etc., the soaring quality of this song is stirring in fine ways that manage to make the breast heave. Johnny leaves the song too early for my tastes, but what he gives us is delicious. Disc Three, Redemption Songs, ends with a stripped down alternate take of one of Johnny’s last songs, “The Man Comes Around.” It’s a bit more boxcar rhythms and a bit more quiet, without the holy preacher quality that makes the album version such a stirring prophecy. Unearthed does contain two discs weaker than the rest, My Mother’s Hymn Book (released briefly as a limited edition fifth American album) and the fifth Best of Cash disc that simply collects Rubin’s favorites from all the others. I think it can generally be assumed if you’re buying a pricey box set that you probably have the other four albums already and don’t have any use for this disc. The “Hymn Book” disc suffers from a repetitious song structure, tempo, and rendition in its first half that make getting to the more rewarding second half a bit of a slog.

The stripped down quality of so many of these songs in the American catalog allows you to see them in an entirely new light, which is really the entire point of songs being covered. Someone hears a song and says, I know I can bring my own meaning to that. After hearing Johnny steal “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” right out from under Robert Flack and expose the sheer poetic transcendence of its lyrics, I will never be able to hear her version without thinking first of his. In an unfortunate choice, Johnny’s cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” demonstrates how thin the songwriting of that synth band really was. The stride piano in the background is a nice addition, but it can’t help hide the sheer repetitiveness of the guitar work. Cash also tackles that towering inferno of country music, Hank Williams Sr. His “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” features Nick Cave again and it is a thing of beauty, the two men hog-tying Williams’ weepy hit and disembalming it from the archives.

Not generally included in the American label catalog is a VH1 Storytellers duet show with Willie Nelson, each playing their greatest hits and favorite tunes. This is an oil and vinegar kind of thing, the mix of the two styles, Johnny’s rhythmic strumming underneath Willie’s delicate fingerpicking. While the two don’t mix always perfectly, the moments where they come together are synchronous and rare beauty. When Willie knows one of Cash’s songs well he contributes a plaintive high guitar that makes your heart ache deep down and true. On his own songs, Willie plays a strange halting style of sing, play much guitar, sing, play guitar in an almost flamenco style, giving familiar tracks like “You Were Always on My Mind” a strolling, stumbling quality that doesn’t give Johnny anywhere to jump in. It’s a weird performance, almost as if Willie is dismissing Johnny at times.

Taken altogether, Rubin’s American Recordings will some day be looked back upon as every bit important as folk field recordings made in the early part of the twentieth century. They catch a fading star as he manages to summon the reserves for one last Herculean burst of supernova.

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