Review Summary: Facing the end of his life, The Man in Black comes full circle.
True genius, whether understated or bombastic, is almost universally seeded in torment. Human nature’s favorite personal quality lies in redemption, in the comeback, in staring down demons and arriving at full circle beaten and scathed, yet somehow still standing. It’s virtually impossible to achieve your personal penultimate moment without having been torn asunder by the trial by fire that is life, and it is at this moment where we separate the average from the great. Johnny Cash’s ride through this whirlwind was more colorful than most. His trials were huge, his ability unmatched, his penchant for massive, overreaching contradiction unrivaled. Cash’s well documented torment is buried in contradiction, and the fact that he was intelligent enough to fully understand it made the underlying pain that much worse. It’s much easier to be a bastard when you don’t know any better. It’s a hell of a lot easier to essentially abandon a wife and four children in favor of truckloads of dope and miles of tempting p*ssy if you do not carry an ingrained Religious and spiritual background. It’s these mitigating factors that ripped Cash apart internally but also made him shine professionally, carried by an overpowering sense of heartbreaking sentimentality to combat the Outlaw. The scope of genius in art is rooted in motivational sorrow. In short, Johnny Cash BECAME a legend because he was a straight up son-of-a-bitch.
Cash found redemption long before “American IV.” The last record released before his death, “American IV” is not the sound of a man suddenly realizing his life is a waste with few stitches of time to redeem it. “American IV” is not arguably Cash’s greatest studio recording because he suddenly came to terms with himself. Its transcendent greatness favors understatement over bombast, a bleak sense of rawness chronicling a lifetime of contradiction, 60 years of torment delivered bare by a still beautifully baritoned but now shaky throat. It may be ironic that an album mostly full of covers can be the ultimate detail of Cash’s life, his final great act and ride into the sunset, but its overpowering sentimentality and the song choices suit his life and mood while recording it better than possible anywhere else. This album IS Johnny Cash, and while he didn’t write the majority of it, the subject matter of the songs and the manner in which they are executed deliver an unmatched correlation to just who the hell he was, and more importantly, where he was mentally while facing impending death.
It’s entirely ironic the deeply spiritual Cash’s epitaph was written by an industrial metal legend who is not only an atheist but holds a deep seeded, burning contempt for religion. The concept of Johnny Cash successful pulling off “Hurt” seems like utter madness on the surface, but owing to his mastery of contradiction the execution of the song and it’s soul-ripping theme of everything eventually turning to dust is so utterly gorgeous and deeply transcendent it can legitimately be considered the greatest cover song in the history of music. Classic songs like “Desperado,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Personal Jesus,” and “In My Life” have always resonated deeply with people, every one of them about troubled souls finally grasping redemption and nostalgically reflecting back on it just before it’s too late. It’s not that Cash’s versions are better than the originals, it’s the way he makes them his own, his life experience installing an overpowering sense of legitimacy to the themes, his lifetime of contradiction delivered raw by that soothing voice. The same man who sympathized with both prisoners and their victims, all while fully deserving to BE in Folsom Prison is the perfect option to deliver this canvas of acceptance tinged with a subtle hint of desperation. You’ll hear the pangs of a lifetime of duality in the morose double meaning of “I Hung My Head.” You can hear the fear in Johnny’s voice throughout, yet he’s still there in sunshine and in shadows, just when you think he might cower in the face of impending mortality he stands tallest.
More than anything, “American IV” is about that acceptance of the past, about grasping redemption with pride, still feeling the raging pangs of fear but facing that sh*t head on. Johnny’s tired voice was one of the most powerful of its time, but now this old man’s baritone frequently cracks and quivers like a teenager, fully cementing the album’s theme of coming full circle. One of Cash’s greatest moments, “The Man Comes Around” happens at the onset of his epitaph. A song detailing faith, the Rapture, the co-mingling of saints and sinners in the face of God, it’s the perfect accompaniment for what Johnny wanted to tell us. His time was up, but damn it if he wasn’t finally ready for it.