American IV was released in 2002, and was the last album released in Cash’s lifetime. (Though not the last album with new material from Cash.) It’s a real collaborative effort, with appearances by Fiona Apple, Nick Cave, Billy Preston, Don Henly, and others.
Looking through my list of albums, I find Cash is a bit of an anomaly. Almost all of the bands/artists here are performing their own material. Sure, there are covers here and there, but for the most part it’s the singer/songwriter model. (Jacqueline du Pré is the other obvious exception.)
Only three of the songs on American IV were written by Cash, and throughout his career he tended towards covers/standards more than his own material. But even if the song didn’t originate with Cash, he takes it places where the original author hadn’t pictured.
Johnny Cash owns Trent Reznor’s “Hurt”
Cash’s cover of “Hurt” is the most obvious example here. Admittedly, when I first heard that Cash would be covering Nine Inch Nails, I was a little bit skeptical, but it turns out that skepticism was unwarranted. This is actually the song that drew me totally into Cash’s orbit. You can feel the weight of Cash’s life and every regret he’s ever had in this performance, channeled into beauty.
See also, Cash’s cover of “In My Life.” This is one of my favorite Beatles songs, perhaps my very favorite. The arrangement for “In My Life” is not so different, especially next to “Hurt,” but you get the insight and weight of a career at its end. Cash’s voice is no longer as authoritative and powerful as it was, but it still knows its way around a song.
Cash also revisits several songs that he’d recorded previously, “Give My Love to Rose,” “Sam Hall,” “Danny Boy,” “Tear Stained Letter,” “Streets of Laredo,” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
These are all worthwhile returns to familiar territory. “Give My Love to Rose” is improved with age, in my opinion. A little slower, a little more reflective. And, to be honest, I enjoy Cash’s voice with a little mileage on it. (OK, a lot of mileage.)
He can still tear it up, as demonstrated on “Sam Hall.” It’s a little bit of levity in an album with quite a few somber tracks.
I’ll admit, I’m still not entirely sold on the cover of “Personal Jesus.” Oh, it’s good and all, but it’s the sole cut on the album that feels out of character for Cash. If I’d had a choice I would have loved to see Cash cover something off of Black Celebration.
The man comes around
The only song on American IV that’s entirely new is “The Man Comes Around.” This is the opening track to the album, and it begins with Cash reciting from Revelation. Though I don’t share Cash’s religious views, I still find this to be a powerful song. The deep bass of the piano, the subject matter, and Cash’s impassioned delivery gives this serious heft.
It’s hard for me to imagine any serious music fan that wouldn’t love this album, or much of Cash’s work, to be honest. It’s an exceptional record that caps a unique career. A particularly fine album for just pouring a good Scotch or bourbon and giving it your full attention.