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Sunday, 27 January 2013

Johnny Cash - American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)

On January 14th I became a trainee journalist. For the next year, I’m going to be learning the ropes in the hope that I can finally turn all this writing I do into something resembling a wage.

The training is pretty intense and means that I’m having to learn about things like law and public affairs. On the whole, I’m finding everything pretty easy to follow, but I am struggling with one element: learning shorthand.

Regular readers will probably know that I’m visually impaired, so I have been worried from the outset about my capacity to learn and read shorthand. So far I have found myself being able to learn the letters and write them confidently, but I am finding that when I read the notes back, I suffer terrible eye-strain. I have come to realise this past week is that determination can only get you so far when biology is conspiring against you.

Having spent most of my adult life working towards a career in academia, I found the world of journalism to be really quite refreshing. Established journalists seem friendly and willing to give you help and advice. Fellow trainees are genuine and friendly, and don't have the passive-aggressive competitive ruthlessness and suspicion that was so prevalent in academia.

It’s been a bit of a shock to the system having to wake up every day at 6am and make my way across Leeds for a full day of training. Luckily my wife is still on maternity leave, so she has been taxiing me to and from work. In the car over the last week, we’ve been listening to Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around – an album of gloomy country tracks that brings to mind some of Cormac McCarthy’s darker moments.

The titular album-opener ‘The Man Comes Around’ is a song of judgement and redemption heightened by a sense of revenge that can only usually be found in the Old Testament. For most of the song, Cash’s voice is cold and deliberate, and the guitar work is jerky and uncomfortable, but then the chorus hits with its triumphant tones and angelic imagery.

‘Hurt’ is beyond heart shattering. There are few songs on this planet that pull at my heart like this one. I will always prefer the Nine Inch Nails’ version as a piece of music, but there is something incredibly moving about Cash recording this song at the end of his life, his voice cracking with emotion and world weariness. It brings a lump to my throat just thinking about it.

If ‘Hurt’ wasn’t enough to bring a tear to your eye, then ‘Give My Love to Rose’ is a song about the final words of dying man. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ will always remind me of a drunken night from when I was about 15, where a couple of my best friends got a bit drunk and teary and hugged each other whilst singing along with the Simon and Garfunkel original – and for anyone who was wondering: yes, I was one the cool kids.

The theme of death continues on ‘I Hung My Head’, a song about accidently shooting someone. It’s a song full of shame and regret, and Cash’s vocal delivery makes the song incredibly vivid in its emotive effects. ‘The First Time I Saw Your Face’ is a slow, moody love song accompanied by sparse guitar plucking and subdued organs hovering low in the mix.

The cover of Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’ is structured around dark guitar grooves and bluesy piano flurries. Cash’s version manages to emphasise the religious fervour of the lyrics that seemed somewhat dormant in the original. It’s an excellent version of the song, and probably ranks up there with ‘Hurt’ as one of Cash’s finest cover versions.

‘Sam Hall’ lightens the mood with a chirpy country number about hatred, violence and murder. The subject matter may be dark and uncompromising, but I can imagine Cash performing this in front of a ravenous audience with a wry smile. A cover of ‘Danny Boy’ is performed with a church organ accompaniment, and is a song full of nostalgia and yearning.

‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ is a song that speaks of loss and loneliness. It’s a country standard that shows just how close many country records can be to blues. The same can also be said of ‘Streets of Laredo’, with its imagery of cowboys and their tales of woe.

The album closes with a nostalgic cover of ‘We’ll Meet Again’. The final bars to this one are great: lazy clarinet riffs, sliding ukulele, and a chorus of a dozen or so elderly people singing along. It’s a great feel-good way to end quite an emotionally draining album.

This is an album riddled with images of death, judgement and regret. The fact that many of these songs were recorded so close to Cash’s death gives them a deeper resonance. This is an excellent collection of songs that I will definitely be keeping.

You can follow me on Twitter @Jon_Cronshaw. You can also support the site by purchasing the Keep or Cull ebook for Amazon Kindle. Thank you.

Visit www.johnnycash.com.

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