Like a lot of people, I really didn't become aware of this latter phase of Cash's career until he died, and his cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" became a pseudo-hit. So I bought American Vol. IV in 2003, and then worked my way back from there, eventually getting to this one.
This first one is actually my least favorite of Cash's American Recordings albums, partially because the songs are just so spare that they don't fully engage me. But I also admire that approach, and that's something Rubin has been really good at when he begins producing an already-established artist--figuring out what the core elements of that artist's sound and talent are, and focusing solely on those, stripping away almost everything else. In several cases, like with Petty's Wildflowers, Jay-Z's Black Album, and these Cash albums, the results have helped redefine entire careers.
My favorite song on this first American Recordings album is the last one, "The Man Who Couldn't Cry," which is also the only one not recorded in a studio. The simple inclusion of the crowd noises on this song (the album version was recorded at L.A.'s Viper Room) really helps sell the jokes of the lyrics. It's almost like hearing others laugh at the song gives you permission to laugh yourself. There's also something about hearing Cash perform live, late in his life, with no musical accompaniment. It's a reminder of just how talented and magnetic his voice and delivery was.
The original version of this song is by Loudon Wainwright III (dad of Rufus), and it's performed roughly the same way. But Wainwright's voice was so much higher and more delicate that the song sounded like it had an entirely different meaning. Even though the lyrics are the same, Loudon's original doesn't really sound funny. It sounds more like he's relaying a true story, and an incredibly depressing one. With Cash, the unflinching deepness of his voice feels like such a non-sequiter to the sad subject matter that it could only be a joke. Cash takes away all sensitivity from the song and replaces it with a matter-of-fact, dry morbidness that seems to fit the song even better. That's how you know someone has a classic voice: When its mere presence can alter the entire emotional spectrum of the material.
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