Despite the way this will undoubtedly be marketed, there's not as much novelty here as on 1994's American Recordings: Johnny Cash singing a U2 song? Hell, he did that on Zooropa. Singing with Tom Petty and backed by various Heartbreakers? That's all Unchained is. And sure, he offers his take on songs by Nick Cave and Will Oldham and Neil Diamond, yet those are only the latest additions to a list that includes Beck, Soundgarden, Glenn Danzig, Shel Silverstein, Nick Lowe, and Bob Dylan. It's rare that an artist can continue to add vital chapters to his history so deep into his career, but Johnny Cash manages to do it every time out. Solitary Man isn't as spare as the Johnny-and-guitar American Recordings, nor does it have as much going on as Unchained, the disc that saw Cash sitting in with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. It's more along the lines of "I Witnessed A Crime," one of the songs that didn't make American Recordings, featuring ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons adding his electric guitar--a series of small, well-chosen combos. He's paired up with Merle Haggard on "I'm Leavin' Now," Petty on "I Won't Back Down" and the title track, and Randy Scruggs, Marty Stuart, and Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench elswhere. But none of that really matters.
What it comes down to is this: When Johnny Cash sings a song, it belongs to him, forever rendered in his weary baritone. The first eight songs on American III: Solitary Man were penned by others, five of the last six were written by Cash, and you can't tell the difference between the two sets. When Cash sings, "Did you know how much I love you?/'Cause I hope that somehow you...can save me...from this darkness," it's impossible to believe that "I See a Darkness" wasn't written with Johnny Cash in mind, or actually written in Cash's mind. Of course, when he's joined by "Darkness"' songwriter, Will Oldham, on vocals, you can hear why: Cash and Oldham sing together like blood brothers, Oldham's reedy desperation the flipside to Cash's heavy-hearted resignation. Backed by the low grumble of a piano and a couple of wispy acoustics, Cash wrings every drop of hope from each line, his voice growing stronger and clearer with each word: "Well I hope that someday buddy/We have peace in our lives/Together or apart, alone or with our wives/And we can stop our whoring and pull the smiles inside/And light it up forever and never go to sleep." Too bad Oldham already used the song as a title track to one of his own albums, because it sums up this disc much more than Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man." Make no mistake, this is the heart of the album, a song that speaks directly to a man who once crawled into a cave to die, figuring that the only way back from the edge was to jump over it. You can hear in his voice that he continues to see that darkness; he's just found a way around it.
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As good as Cash's "I See a Darkness" is, his take on Nick Cave and Mick Harvey's "The Mercy Seat" is almost better, with its cascading piano keys and moaning organs supporting Cash's lovegodmurder preaching, singing about crimes he did/didn't commit and Jesus' dying on the cross. From his jail-cell pulpit, Cash's words spill out with an intensity he hasn't displayed in years, his voice full of hellfire and brimstone goddammitdontletmedie. He's onstage at San Quentin or Folsom again, singing to the damned, and sounding as though he's one of 'em. And then, two songs later, he's out of the joint and in the midst of a Carter Family reunion, as Sheryl Crow and his wife, June Carter Cash, join him on his own "Field of Diamonds," storming straight outta hell and up into heaven. Only one man can make himself sound right at home in both places.