After being sorely neglected by both the Country world and the Pop music world alike for two decades, Johnny Cash rebounded in the mid-nineties with his ever-so-famed American recordings. A string of classic albums beautifully produced to perfection by Rick Rubin, the American series made Johnny seemingly more popular than ever.
It's not hard in the least to comprehend the legend of the Man in Black. Ever since the fifties he sang with the passion and voice of a wise old man. He almost single-handedly made Country music susceptible to make a dent in the charts, and it's not hard to understand why. Country music was the soundtrack to American life in the fifties along with the up and coming Rock 'n' Roll saga. Johnny fit in perfectly with either group, with his crazy stage antics, heavy drinking and drug use. He really was the first bad boy of music. Ironically, this "bad boy behavior" is what led to his slow but steady downfall in the early seventies. Succumbing to hardcore drug habits and going through a tough divorce, it seemed the extremely depressed Johnny would never recapture his musical peak that influenced so many artists. But he came back, eventually, and cut his first classic American album, simply titled American Recordings.
Johnny doesn't sound as if he had aged in the least in the past two decades. His voice is still as wise as it had ever been, but it seems more fitting to Johnny more than ever. Johnny has some stories to tell after a couple decades, and it only makes sense that his voice is that of a gifted storyteller. Hearing his creaky and unique voice singing with mountain-rumbling power over the strumming of a sole acoustic guitar is an extremely powerful experience both for it's simplicity and it's reluctance to change. It's this reluctance to change that gives this album it's incredible country feel, but what's more amazing is that it doesn't get boring at all. While the album remains simplistic, it's still incredible because Johnny plays the album out amazingly entertaining, begininning with his uplifting and triumphant songs in the beginning, going into the more depressing and sad songs in the middle and ending on a humorous note.
Johnny manages to hold your interest not by just the fact that he's, well, The Man in Black, but that he tells an amazing story on each song. On the depressing, bleak and wonderfully pretty ballad Redemption
, Johnny speaks of slavery and natural disasters, which really only makes sense if you listen to the song. On the semi-autobioagraphal song The Beast In Me
, Mr. Cash sings of a young spirit emobied in an old body, something Johnny could be identified with, and with the live tune The Man Who Couldn't Cry
, the story is reminiscent of the classic cut A Boy Named Sue
for it's incredible sense of irony. It tells the tale of a man who, well couldn't cry from what the critics said about his flop Broadway play, rejected book and movie, his run over dog and his sentance in prison. Things turn around when the man died, and all who harmed him got what they deserved. Wonderfully humorous, this song thrives on Johnny's unique sense of humor. Plus who can't crack a smile when he sings "Lost his arm in a war, was laughed at by a whore, but still not a sniffle or snob
, or His wife died of stretch marks
Short, simplistic songs are aplenty here, and each one is fantastic in their own right. They may be a little bit repetetive, but they're kept alive by the sheer presence of Johnny. As I've said before, it's really the lyrics that keep the listeners entranced, but it's also the way that the songs, though similar, can change from uplifiting and humorous, to bleak with a sense of dark irony. The guitar's basic riffs are what allows Johnny to tell his stories with variety and sincere passion on every track, it seems just completely necessary that it's just a man with his guitar sharing his words of wisdom. Every track is completely powerful in it's own right, but it's really the slow, historical sounding songs that grab your attention. Songs like Down There By the Train
and Let the Train Blow the Whistle
are uplifiting and powerful that, if played too over-exaggerated or Cash aimed a little too high, had been disasterous. It's really these songs that are the highlight because, since this is a comeback album, it's really only necessary that this album should be a happy re-uniting instead of a sad one. If you're new to Johnny Cash, it'd be best to hear a happier Johnny, because first impressions are important.
Overall, this album is a fantastic country album from the definitive Country artist. I could ask for nothing more in a Johnny Cash album, and this album doesn't come up short even to classics like Folsom or San Quentin. The only thing that holds this album back a tad is the lack of variety in the guitar, but as I've said it doesn't make that much of a difference because Johnny portrays his lighter side and his darker side with deadly accuracy, and it's the music that allows him to cross that line with ease. If you're new to Johnny Cash, it's probably best to get Folsom or San Quentin first, but this should not be passed up. If you're a country fan and this is missing in you're CD library, then there's no question what album you need to get next. Make this one it.