Saturday, 21 September 2002

Album Review: Solitary Man

In 2000, Johnny Cash’s health had weakened considerably, but this release confirmed that his creative powers were still very much intact. Solitary Man ranks among the finest moments in a recording career that lasted for over half a century.

Solitary Man begins on a defiant note with Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down. Certainly the presence of Petty’s backing vocals and organ playing should be noted, but Cash gracefully appropriates the song, adding a measure of gravitas that was absent from the original. The track is given an impact and poignancy that help transcend the original’s pop leanings.

Cash’s ability to allow the listener to identify with a song was never greater than on this album, but some credit for that must go to Rick Rubin for his trademark under-production. Paring down the instrumentation and arrangements allows the listener to more easily identify with the sentiments being expressed by Cash’s words – whether they are his own or not. Never is this more obvious than on his remarkable re-casting of Nick Cave’s death row narrative The Mercy Seat. Cash replaces Cave’s hysterics with a more conversational delivery. The original frantic Bad Seeds instrumentation is reduced to a hovering organ and a swirling piano melody. Despite the comparatively minimalist approach, the result is no less powerful.

Elsewhere, the title track, a version of Neil Diamond’s 1966 hit, and the soulful cover of U2’s melancholy stadium-ballad One offer further evidence that Cash has an uncanny talent for transforming the works of others. However, it is his interpretation of Bonny Prince Billy’s (Will Oldham) I See A Darkness that stands out. If nothing else, the stark contrast between Cash’s gnarled voice and Oldham’s youthful tone is heartbreaking. When Cash quavers, “There’s a hope that somehow you can save me from this darkness”, all but the callous eyes will be welling up.

However, not all the covers on Solitary Man are borrowed from recent and current artists. Cash’s versatility (in addition to his musical heritage) is once again highlighted, as he resurrects the self-mocking Nobody, a one-hundred-year-old vaudeville tune written by Egbert Williams. Cash also revisits the old treasures That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day) and Mary Of The Wild Moor, upon which Sheryl Crow contributes.

Cash’s own compositions are no less compelling that the cover versions however. Rather the show signs of weakness so late in his career (like so many of his contemporaries), Cash’s song writing is as sharp as ever. Before My Time is a touching love song as well as a humbling consideration of his own place in history. Similarly tender is Field Of Diamonds. While it was originally recorded in 1986 with Waylon Jennings, this new version is enhanced by the backing duet of June Carter Cash and Sheryl Crow.

Cash’s version of the old spiritual Wayfaring Stranger is perhaps the most poignant track on the CD. As Cash lists the family members with whom he will be reunited with in death you can’t help but think that this is a sublime closer to not only an album but to a career. Tragically, his career would only last three more years, but Solitary Man is a wonderful reminder that whether the subject was love, God or murder, Cash was the finest storyteller of them all.

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