American IV: The Man Comes Around

Johnny Cash

Universal Records, 2002

REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones


“There’s a man goin’ ‘round takin’ names…” These immutable, half-sung words, rasped out by a man on the verge of death, tracked over a chunking acoustic guitar line begin Johnny Cash’s magnum opus and the final album of this life. “The Man Comes Around” is by far the best song Cash ever wrote, exceeding his early hits in melody and lyricism and even surpassing picturesque songs like “Sunday Morning Coming Down” in its imagery. The apocalyptic theme encapsulates everything Cash believed spiritually and is sung with the conviction of a man who was ready to meet his maker.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

And that’s just the first song. American IV is an amazing roller coaster of well-picked songs.  “The Man Comes Around” flows seamlessly into Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” which takes on a new meaning in Cash’s version. It is sung with the added urgency of an old man reviewing his mistakes and regrets in life before he moves on. Song selection in American IV is remarkable, with tunes like Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” and The Eagles’ “Desperado” sitting beside quiet standards like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Danny Boy.” “Give My Love to Rose” and “Streets of Laredo” are Western style ballads performed in the bare bones approach of American Recordings, while Cash’s remake of his own “Tear Stained Letter” sounds like it fits in better with Unchained.

The album also contains a cover of one of the best and also most underrated songs that Sting has ever written, “I Hung My Head.” Cash comes at this modern twist to the Western crime and fugitive ballad with musical simplicity but with conviction and power that does the song justice.  Other songs like “In My Life” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” are pretty perfunctory, but do not take away from the album as a whole. The only track that could have been done better is “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which features Fiona Apple on harmony vocals. The pair does not mix well, and the rubato nature of Cash’s lead vocal seem to make it hard for Apple to sing with him.

It is impossible to hear an album that was an artist’s last while they were alive and not read something into the song selections. With American IV, these connections are constant. One would think that this would make such an album depressing, but it does not. This final album is the best of Cash’s American years and is a phenomenal capstone to a successful career and life, seeing the Man In Black out with great fanfare and respect.

Rating: A-

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