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Spotlight on: American IV: The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash

Cover of American IV: The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around

Indeed, the whole thing was a gimmick from the start (albeit a gimmick that succeeds), but the American series of albums have done more than anything else to bring Johnny Cash back to the forefront of popular music. With producer Rick Rubin, Cash hab elevated the art of the cover version, choosing seemingly incongruous songs and making them work.

Well, mostly. The tracks on American IV: The Man Comes Around are a mixed bag, but extra points are given for the pure imagination it took to pair The Man in Black with such dissimilar artists as Fiona Apple (on Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water") and Nick Cave (on Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," which the Cowboy Junkies performed so beautifully on The Trinity Session) with apparently minimal regard for the success of the recording.

The high points of American IV: The Man Comes Around come from varied spots. Opener "The Man Comes Around" is an original Cash composition that inspires with quotes from the Book of Revelation. Christian songs usually turn me off with their heavyhandedness, but Cash's sincerity and understatement make this one soar. In fact, he seems to have a knack for making other writers' songs sound more genuine coming from his lips than their own. During Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" (from their Violator album), I always felt that lead singer Dave Gahan was just paying lip service to a good idea, but Johnny Cash makes us believe that he really would be there if you needed him.

And who would have thought that anyone could make a Nine Inch Nails song even more depressing? Trent Reznor's version of "Hurt" (on The Downward Spiral) would occasionally descend into whining, but Cash speaks from a long life of struggle. Benmont Tench's dramatic keyboard work underscores every emotion, assisting them through a crescendo all the way to the end, showing why Tench is our greatest modern ivory-tickler.

Coming as the closer, "We'll Meet Again" carries even more emotional weight than originally, now that the two stars of the song -- Johnny and June Carter Cash -- have passed on. But their legacy remains to entertain us evermore. The fact that Rubin -- best known for producing hip-hop records of the 1980s -- allows Cash's artistry on American IV: The Man Comes Around (and its predecessors: American Recordings, Unchained, and American 3: Solitary Man) to flow unimpeded by unnecessary bells and whistles, in a time when even Cash himself didn't think that possible, shows his confidence in the simple truth of his work and his soul. All music fans owe a debt to Johnny Cash and we will all feel his absence, even indirectly.

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