As Johnny Cash sings Nine Inch Nails' anti-drug revelation "Hurt,"
acoustic guitars rustle, ephemerally masking pain with a self-assured
insouciance. When he utters the song's first line, "I hurt myself
today/ To see if I still feel," Cash channels Trent Reznor's macabre
delivery, replacing Reznor's anguish with wisdom and a grandfatherly
On his fourth collaboration with rock producer Rick Rubin (Red Hot
Chili Peppers, Tom Petty, System of a Down), Cash has delivered yet
another solid album of unexpected covers and novel takes on older
original material. Cash might surprise with his choice of covers, but
in nearly all of his selections, he locates some personal meaning, or
introduces new emotional elements, as is the case with "Hurt."
"Hurt" is so striking because of its radical departure from its
original version, a morose recording by Nine Inch Nails, a band far
removed, at least musically, from anything Cash has recorded during
his 50 or so years making records. Sure, we all know Cash is known as
the Man in Black, but still... a Nine Inch Nails song? Cash who
probably dealt with more demons before Reznor was even born than the
Nine Inch Nails leader will ever know appropriates "Hurt." He
owns it. Lines such as "You could have it all/ My empire of dirt/ I
will lay you down/ I will make you hurt" are imbued with such
finality as they're overtaken by guitar playing that grows fiercer
with each line.
The unabashedly spiritual Cash puts an ecclesiastical sheen on
Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," performing the originally new-wave
song (the British group's first to feature a guitar) in such a way
that one can't help but take the lyrics at face value. In Cash's
version, the song becomes a jaunty acoustic number flecked with
flinty slide guitar and kitschy, rolling piano. Cash adds weight to
the refrain, which is repeated over and over: "Reach out and touch
Spiritual matters occupy more time on the album, including the
Cash-penned title track "When the Man Comes Around," a blatant
messianic number. Another Cash original, "Give My Love to Rose,"
gains much from its new version, with its defeated narrator, an
earnest loser who wishes to make amends with his wife and child.
Cash's own hardened experience conveyed in every word he sings
gives the song great resonance.
Several guest appearances, including Fiona Apple's lush harmonizing
with Cash on the Simon and Garfunkel '70s classic "Bridge Over
Troubled Water" and Nick Cave's accompaniment on Hank Williams' "I'm
So Lonesome I Could Cry," augment his performances. The duets work
well on the album, balancing the songs sung only by Cash.
Occasionally a song choice misfires, in particular a stale retelling
of "Danny Boy." Also, Cash's leathery voice is ill suited to the
Beatles' "In My Life." Instead of sounding ruminative, the song
sounds anemic, weary. And a cheesy ensemble take on "We'll Meet
Again" would have best been left in the vaults. These are minor
distractions, however. And the rest of American IV: When the Man
Comes Around more than makes up for them.