American IV: The Man Comes Around
Johnny Cash
American Recordings/Lost Highway Records

  1. The Man Comes Around
  2. Hurt
  3. Give My Love to Rose
  4. Bridge Over Troubled Water
  5. I Hung My Head
  6. First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
  7. Personal Jesus
  8. In My Life
  9. Sam Hall
  10. Danny Boy
  11. Desperado
  12. I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry
  13. Tear Stained Letter
  14. Streets of Laredo
  15. We'll Meet Again

This album is simply amazing. I had never owned a Johnny Cash record before, but after hearing the "Hurt" cover, I checked out a couple of other tracks on the internet, and I was sold. After I picked it up, I wasn't disappointed.

The album is a mix of different styles of songs, from upbeat to tear-jerking. However, regardless of the song or its original performer, Cash makes almost every tune his own.

It starts off with the title track, "The Man Comes Around," which is Cash's take on the Book of Revelations. The song begins and ends with spoken word quotes from the Bible (Revelations 6:1-2 and 6:8) describing two of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Conquest/Pestilence and Death, respectively). In spite of the subject matter, the song is fast-paced and catchy, peppy even.

The second track, on the other hand, is anything but peppy - it's a cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." Hardly surprisingly, Cash gets the song's themes of despair and relapse into addiction across much better than Trent Reznor can. Where Reznor needs industrial samples and thousands of dollars worth of electronics to do it, Cash does it simply with a voice that's been ravaged by years of overuse.

After that, there's another sad song, "Give My Love to Rose." It's the first cowboy song on the disc, and another original by Cash. It's also one of the weaker tracks, detailing the last wishes of a man who has been shot on the way from California to Louisiana and is very nearly dead. It's somewhat formulaic, and certainly isn't bad, it just doesn't stand out - sort of a lull between exceptional tracks.

Next is a cover of Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water." This is another track where the song really benefits from Cash's voice. When Simon sings the song, it's good, but it seems like it's mostly about a friend willing to help another friend out. When Cash sings it, you're sure he means he's willing to lay down his very life. Fiona Apple does backing vocals on the track.

Track five is another cowboy song, "I Hung My Head." It's a Sting cover - having never heard the original, I was a little surprised to find that out, because it fits in perfectly with the image of himself Cash gives on the disc. It's about a man who accidentally shoots a rider while playing with a gun, and what goes through his head afterwards, and up to his hanging - and all of the ensuing regret and the search for spiritual redemption in the face of having ended another's life.

"First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" is another cover. There's not all that much that can be said about it, except that I think the original isn't a very good song to begin with - Cash's quivering, broken voice at least gives it a certain reminiscent, wistful quality that I think the original lacks.

Next is a cover of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus." This is just fun. Really, there's nothing to add to it by Cash doing it, but it's neat to hear it as a country song.

A Beatles cover ensues, as track eight is "In My Life." This version actually mists me up, especially now (given that Cash's wife, June Carter Cash, just passed away). This is another one where you wonder if the original performer could possibly have known what they were talking about, compared to someone who sounds like he's lived through so much.

Next is a song called "Sam Hall." This is another cowboy song in the "shot a man just to watch him die" vein. It's also kind of peppy - not terribly remarkable, but a fun listen.

Then we get back into the sadder sounding songs with a rendition of "Danny Boy". This one isn't very remarkable either - in fact, of all the covers on the album, I'm inclined to say that Cash put his own stamp least of all on this one. On the other hand, this is sort of a hard song to make your own, so that doesn't come as a surprise.

Don Henley does backing vocals on Cash's cover of "Desperado", which serves as track eleven. Again, this is where Cash seems to excel on this album - the songs dealing with pain, loneliness and regret - things he's lived through in spades. It probably doesn't hurt that "Desperado" is a cowboy song, either, because Cash's twang seems to fit it perfectly.

"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is a Hank Williams cover, but it fits in well with Cash's originals. His voice once again sounds broken, and you get the impression as he's singing that he could break down in tears any moment. Nick Cave guests on the track, though I don't find Cave's performance to be terribly inspiring.

"Tear Stained Letter" doesn't fit on this album, really. It's a jilted love song on an album about death. The performance isn't problematic, it's just an odd fit for the rest of the album.

"Streets of Laredo" is a traditional song that Cash uses for the penultimate track. It's another sad cowboy song, and it has a certain epic quality to it (not for its length, but for the storytelling style contained in it). It's another one that benefits from the tremulous quality that's in Cash's voice for most of the album.

Finally, the album ends on a happier tune with "We'll Meet Again". After all of the sadness on the album, though, and the constant reminder of Cash's mortality contained in every syllable his voice shudders through, one can't help but wonder if that's true. Through the whole album, we're shown Cash's spiritual and emotional journey, and that he has accepted the inevitability of death and judgement, and is comfortable with his place in the whole cycle. He may not welcome death, but the album suggests that he's at peace with its coming.

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