On any technical level, Johnny Cash can’t sing. He never really could. And at 70, following several years of ill health that have brought him close to death, his deep baritone is shakier than ever. So what do you do? You put the voice centre stage, shine the spotlight on its honesty, authority and emotional conviction and suddenly any technical shortcomings seem like virtues.
The genius of this simple but bold idea belongs mostly to Rick Rubin, who has produced four superb albums with Cash for his American Recordings label, which now goes through the ever-astute Lost Highway, home of Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams.
There’s nothing quite as cathartic as his extraordinary version of Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” on the third volume in the series. But The Man Comes Around may be the most consistent of the four albums to date. Intimate and stripped down, it sounds like a man reflecting on his long life and mortal failings as he settles back in the cabin porch and prepares to meet his maker.
Nowhere is this truer than his takes on The Beatles’ “In My Life”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. Few could bring anything new to them. Cash does in a way that reminds us that there is nothing hackneyed about such songs per se, merely about the uninspiring way we have got used to them being covered. He even does it to “Danny Boy”, and sings “Desperado” in a way that makes The Eagles sound like a boy band.
It’s not all covers. Singing about God, death and divine retribution has always brought out the best in Cash, and the self-written title track is a masterpiece of the genre. But there are some real surprises among the covers, too. Who’d have ever imagined he could sing Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”? Yet with its lines about a “crown of thorns”, it was an inspired choice, and it’s arguably the best track on the album. Other highlights include the murder ballads “I Hung My Head” and “Sam Hall”, and the gospel-confessional “Personal Jesus”. God and death and retribution. Of course.
Intriguing names on the guest list include Fiona Apple singing on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Nick Cave on Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. But they’re almost irrelevant alongside Cash’s towering non-voice. ‘Compelling’ is the most over-worked word in the rock reviewer’s lexicon. For once, it’s entirely appropriate.