Artist: Johnny Cash
Title: American Recordings III - Solitary Man
Format: Single LP
Catalogue Number: 5101-12794-1
Year of Release: 2000
A1 I Won't Back Down (2:09)
A2 Solitary Man (2:25)
A3 That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day) (2:35)
A4 One (3:53)
A5 Nobody (3:14)
A6 I See A Darkness (3:42)
A7 The Mercy Seat (4:35)
B1 Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone) (2:41)
B2 Field Of Diamonds (3:15)
B3 Before My Time (2:55)
B4 Country Trash (1:47)
B5 Mary Of The Wild Moor (2:32)
B6 I'm Leavin' Now (3:07)
B7 Wayfaring Stranger (3:19)
I've written before about how I missed The Great Johnny Cash Revival when it was happening, but at risk of repeating myself, I can only think that ignoring this album on its release was wilfully ignorant on my part, especially featuring, as it does, covers of two songs by long-standing favourites Nick Cave and Will Oldham.
Indeed, the number of cover versions on the third instalment of the American Recordings series has been ramped up somewhat, and the original or Cash-penned material reduced and given lower billing. Partly this would be down to his illness, (covered in more detail at wikipedia) but there would have been a commercial consideration too - the choosing of unusual but appropriate numbers for Johnny to cover had become a trademark of the series at this point.
Furthermore, there just isn't a duff number on the first side. OK, at times the famous Cash baritone wavers, but it always did. Yes, he sounds like an old man, but he was 68 and had lung damage. One the sleevenotes he writes, "I don't sound as good to me as he [Rick Rubin] says I do", and it's hard to listen to the album without the feeling that it was performed by someone who knew they were in the last stages of their life. Lines like, "You know I have a drive, to live I won't let go" from I See A Darkness, and even, "Well it's too late, tonight, to drag the past out, into the light" from U2's One are given a weight that I wouldn't say the originals lacked exactly, but their significance has changed.
Putting Nobody in the middle of those two was great arrangement too. Apparently an old Vaudeville number that used to be sung, "a hundred years ago". The comedy picks things up after the albums threatens to get too heavy and ponderous. Finishing the side with The Mercy Seat is a similarly smart move, as the song is itself quite funny in its increasingly lurid descriptions of the convict in the electric chair. Cash's rendition of The Mercy Seat is so good that when I saw Nick Cave last at the Edinburgh Playhouse, he said, "This next one is a Johnny Cash song" before playing it.
The B-side starts with a cover version, then features material that Cash has recorded before, in the 70s and 80s, and Before My Time, the only new composition on the record. It's the job of Country Trash to lighten the mood, and to some extent also the duet with Merle Haggard, I'm Leaving Now.
From the opening twang (a little reminiscent of busker's favourite Here Comes the Sun, but that's by-the-by) to the closing Wayfaring Stranger this a simply stunning piece of work - "and I feel another in there somewhere" he says in the sleevenotes. That he managed that, and more, is testament to the legend that is Johnny Cash. If you're avoiding these records for any reason, I strongly advise you to stop.