Monday, 4 November 2002

Album Review: The Man Comes Around

After more than five decades of making tremendous music that made listeners angry, enchanted and touched in equal measure, it would turn out that The Man Comes Around would be Johnny Cash's swansong. For his final studio album, Cash (alongside producer Rick Rubin) presents a collection of simply overwhelming passion and beauty.

His final album begins with the finest track Cash had written for twenty years. The Man Comes Around is an epic tale of the apocalypse, interpreting the Book of Revelations with uplifting exuberance. Restraint, resignation and a desire for peace pervade the prophetic imagery. The Man Comes Around is truly beautiful and furious in equal measure.

Later he exhumes ancient standards like Danny Boy and Streets of Laredo and allows them to harness a new elegance. Cash even delves into his own bag and rearranges the dark humour of Sam Hall as well as adjusting the already beautiful Give My Love To Rose. Elsewhere, The Beatles' In My Life becomes breathtakingly poignant. How could it not be when sung by a man with such a wealth of experience (especially when one bears in mind how young both Lennon and McCartney were when they wrote it)? The song becomes everything it should be when it falls into Cash's world-weary hands - touching the heart and soul with every hint of its deeper meaning.

It is a tribute to Cash's immense talent that he takes a song as hoary as Bridge Over Troubled Water and totally reanimates it. Simon and Garfunkel's masterpiece has been played so many times the listener has become utterly numb any impact it once had. Cash, with his weathered, frayed voice makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. At 72 years of age, few, if any could match the emotional power Cash could generate.

At times the track selection may seem odd but Cash is always up to the task at hand. He captures I Hung My Head, leaving the listener in no doubt that the song was always more Cash's than it was Sting's. Then along with Nick Cave, he does justice to Hank Williams' I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. The slithering blues groove of Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus is another unexpected highlight. On these tracks Cash taps into the essence of each song and truly makes them his own.

However, it will be his staggering rendition of Nine Inch Nails' Hurt that ensures this album's prominence. Where Reznor's original was a troubled paean to drug addiction, Cash infuses the track with genuine heart to accompany the bitterness. Cash treats the song with such honesty that adds to what was an already powerful mantra in Reznor's hands. Frankly it's the only song of the last decade to move me into an awed silence every single time I hear it.

Perhaps fittingly the album comes to an end with the sentimental classic We'll Meet Again. It closes with the prophetic line, "We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when / but I know we'll meet again some sunny day." Rest In Peace Johnny. You'll be greatly missed.

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