And so we finally break the Top 25, and from here on out every selection will be an existential crisis, as I argue with myself on whether I have this or that album rated too low, too high, or whatever. But from this point on, we're talking degrees of magnificence. There really isn't much to choose between these records, and depending upon the day or my mood, I might rank them differently (with the exception of those at the very top).
"The Man Comes Around" was the fourth Johnny Cash album produced by Rick Rubin, and the last released before Cash's death in September 2003. That May, Cash had lost his dear and beloved wife June Carter Cash, and it's not much a stretch to imagine that as he and Rubin were recording the album in 2001 and 2002, that death was not far from his mind. The album is a valediction - Cash confronting his own mortality through a series of songs steeped in death and pain ("Hurt," "I Hung My Head," "Sam Hall," "Streets of Laredo"), sending his eternal love to June ("First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"), and wondering aloud what might await on the other side ("The Man Comes Around," "We'll Meet Again").
"It was hard work. I spent a lot of time on that song, "The Man Comes Around" - weeks and weeks writing and working the lyrics around to the way they are. I was trying for something special. It went through all sorts of changes. I'd written it as a poem - I haven't written many poems before, but that's how it came out - based loosely on the Book of Revelation in the Bible, and I would go from one interpretation to another on this very complicated interpretation - or to me it's very complicated - until I finally found some lyrics that worked. I probably have 40 or 50 verses that I wrote that I didn't use." - Johnny Cash, liner notes, Cash Unearthed
There is an early version of "The Man Who Comes Around" on "Unearthed," and it is instructive to listen to the two versions back-to-back. The first is primarily Cash on acoustic guitar with what I would call a pretty standard country music backing. The song is undeniable, but on that version there is a clear disconnect between the power of the lyrics and the music, which doesn't rise to the occasion. And that is where Rubin came in - because the structure of the song on "American IV" is part of what makes the song so frightening. There's the spoken intro, coming in as if from another world, and then the unmistakable lead-in to the song, sung in almost staccato fashion:
There's a man going around taking names
And he decides who to free and who to blame
Everybody won't be treated all the same
There will be a golden ladder reaching down
When the man comes around
Clearly, not everyone will get to use that golden ladder. This is a truly frightening song, real end-of-the-world stuff - and likely indicative of the things that were running through Cash's mind at the time.
"Usually when I send Johnny songs it's with no real pitch, just "Listen to them and see what ones you like." But I do remember saying when I sent him Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," "I think this particular song is really special one. I feel like the words have a lot of power and with you singing them it's really going to take on a whole new light." - Rick Rubin, liner notes, Cash Unearthed
I've told this story before, but it bears repeating. The first time I heard "Hurt," I was doing something that I've done dozens of times in my life - spending my lunch hour wandering around The Beat, the great downtown Sacramento record store that is one of the few remaining bastions of independence in the industry. Like they often do, they had a number of albums on the CD player on shuffle, so the songs weren't coming up in any particular order. The first "American IV" song I heard that day was "Tear Stained Letter," and I remember thinking "wow, that really sounds awesome." A few other songs went by, and then all of sudden there was "Hurt." And I stood there in front of the speaker, goose bumps running up and down my entire body, totally transfixed by what I was hearing.
If the album consisted of just those two songs, that would probably be enough. But in addition to the great songs already mentioned above, Cash turns in great performances of several classic standards, including "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "In My Life," "Desperado," "Danny Boy," and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," as well as his own take on "Personal Jesus" and a new version of his old song "Give My Love to Rose."
It's a great album, and a fitting testament to a great, great artist.
American IV: The Man Comes Around
Produced by Rick Rubin
The Man Comes Around/Hurt/Give My Love to Rose/Bridge Over Troubled Water/I Hung My Head/First Time Ever I Saw Your Face/Personal Jesus/In My Life/Sam Hall/Danny Boy/Desperado/I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry/Tear Stained Letter/Streets of Laredo/We'll Meet Again