Saturday, February 22, 2014
Rosanne Cash's Southern Journey
Cash has been making albums now for 35 years, and during that span of time she's released at least three albums that I would consider classics: King's Record Shop (1987), Interiors (1990) and Black Cadillac (2006). "Classic" is probably an insufficient term; one can easily make an argument for each of those records being a masterpiece. She's released several others that are "merely great," and on top of all that she recorded one of the singular singles of my lifetime, "Seven Year Ache" - a song that sounds as fresh and vital on hearing it for the 1000th time as it did on the first.
It's been more than a month now since the release of The River & The Thread, and the reason I haven't written about it until now is that I really wanted to give some thought to where it falls within her catalog. There was no question, upon first listen, that this was a great album. But just how great? I've fallen prey in the past - particularly with artists that I am inclined to love - of initially overrating an album, and so I wanted to give this one some time to sink in.
After a month of regular listening, I'm prepared to say that The River & The Thread is the fourth classic album of Rosanne Cash's career, and her second (at least) masterpiece. Yes, it is that good. Thematically and musically unified, featuring some of her best lyrics, and what is almost certainly the best production work that John Leventhal has ever done.
Let's start with the production. I've criticized Leventhal in the past for being a little too fussy with his production, for adding one too many instruments to the mix when perhaps one fewer was more in order. Looking back, I think I was spoiled by the approach that Rodney Crowell took with Rosanne earlier in her career. Back in the 1980s, she was about breaking barriers - you could call her a country artist with credibility, but Crowell's hard-edged production (with its big drum sound) demonstrated that she could sing just about anything with authority, up to and including raving John Hiatt rockers like "Pink Bedroom." In contrast, I felt like Leventhal's production on solid efforts like The Wheel and Rules of Travel sometimes got in the way of the songs, resulting in a mix that - while still strong, don't get me wrong - was less than the sum of its parts.
The turning point was Black Cadillac, which divided the production duties in half, with Bill Bottrell handling the odd-numbered tracks, and Leventhal the even. Bottrell took Cash back closer to a straightforward rock approach (even though the songs were mostly quiet and soft in tone), and Leventhal had no choice but to really follow suit, to avoid an end result that sounded like two different artists (the bane of so many multi-producer efforts). The approach on River & Thread is spare and direct, even though on several songs Leventhal can be heard playing several different instruments. None of these songs are outright rockers (and if I have a minor quibble, that would be it), but the approach is definitely "rockist."
And the songs - well, there is just no questioning that this may be the strongest and most consistent set of songs that Cash has ever recorded for an album. As I've mentioned before, the music always hits me before the lyrics, but it is worth taking the time to listen carefully to these songs, and to read Cash's commentary on each of them in the liner notes. These are stories she is trying to tell here, and to fully understand and appreciate them takes time. From the absorption of history through following a meandering river, to the whole concept of "you have to love the thread" ("A Feather's Not A Bird") from the family histories ("The Sunken Lands," "Etta's Tune") to the deep, rich and sometimes tragic history of the South ("Money Road," "50,000 Watts," "The Long Way Home"), this is an album that knows exactly what it wants to accomplish, and it comes through every time.
It all comes together in "When the Master Calls the Roll," a collaboration between Cash, her husband Leventhal, and her former husband Crowell. It is a magnificent, heartbreaking song, written and sung in the style of a Civil War ballad. It tells the story of William and Mary Ann, who from the first chords of the song we know are in love, but also that their love is doomed - that their time together will not survive the carnage of the battlefield. It's also beautiful and, more importantly, timeless - one can picture the song being sung shortly after the war's end, by a young (or old) Bob Dylan, or by someone who has yet to be be born. The story is strong enough to cross generations.
About that song, Rosanne writes in the liner notes that "the fact that John, Rodney and I wrote this together is tremendous gift." One could say the same thing about the entirety of The River & The Thread - it is a tremendous gift, and even though we are only two months in to 2014, it is clearly the album to beat for Album of the Year.