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American III: Solitary Man
There’s always the danger of confusing Johnny Cash with Robert Mitchum in Night Of The Hunter.
Peter Murphy, 26 Oct 2000
There’s always the danger of confusing Johnny Cash with Robert Mitchum in Night Of The Hunter. In fact, just recently, I saw him cameo in a re-run of Little House On The Prairie. In the yarn, Cash’s stole a sickly preacher’s clothes and set about misappropriating funds in the name of the Lord. The twist was, of course, through impersonating the padre, he began to see the godlessness of his ways and ended up repenting.
The part was tailor-cut. Cash has always been a wolf in priest’s clothing, a fact he acknowledged in Nick Lowe’s ‘The Beast In Me’ from American Recordings. Johnny, as Bono recently pointed out, doesn’t sing to the damned, he sings with them. Consequently, the singer has far more affinity with new roots fundamentalists like Johnny Dowd or 16 Horsepower than most of the horse manure which dominates country radio.
That said, Rick Rubin stops short of co-ordinating an elder statesman’s alt-country opus here, and alas, a mooted cover of The Black Heart Procession’s ‘It’s A Shame I Never Told You About The Diamonds In Your Eyes’ never made the final cut. However, a pair of tunes by Will Oldham and Nick Cave form the centrepiece of this album, and offer some of the most scarifying shit you’ll hear this year.
First up, ‘I See A Darkness’, with Oldham guesting on the choruses, is a blood-chilling expression of an almost occult depression, kind of like sitting with a friend in a bar and he suddenly sits shocked upright, claiming he can see the shadow of a scythe over your shoulder. And while ‘The Mercy Seat’ was always one of Nick Cave’s most ambitious lyrics, Cash’s measured, expertly judged delivery moves the narrative along like a Murnau movie, making it into hallucinatory psychodrama, Dostoevsky on Death Row.
Of course, JC has sung many versions of the murder ballad over the last 50 years, and here he also tackles ‘Mary Of The Wild Moor’ and ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ (recently excavated by 16 Horsepower). Like Dylan, another man who staged a critical resurrection on the back of a serious illness, Cash has the dowser’s gift of locating the strange, gothic (with a small ‘g’) truths in Scottish and Irish standards that got exported to Appalachia. As he says in the sleeve notes: “I realise that songs generally don’t say anything that songs weren’t saying a hundred years ago.”
Almost everything about Solitary Man, including Neil Diamond’s title tune, is bone-hard, stubborn and uncompromising, even – especially – the love songs. ‘Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)’ is more a fiery Old Testament test of faith rather than some sweet enticement, his take on U2’s ‘One’ is compassionate but stony faced, while the interpretation of Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’ locates a seam of seething anger obscured by Jeff Lynne’s production on the original.
There are moments of necessary respite: Egbert Williams’ vaudeville chestnut ‘Nobody’, his own ‘Country Trash’, the old spiritual ‘That Lucky Old Son (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day)’, but these are nothing more or less than opportunities for the singer to spit and sip water before getting back in the ring with the heavyweight material.
There’s nothing quite so scary as an old-timer with a hellhound on his trail. This is The Shit.