Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around

Listening to the flaps and slaps of his lips stickied by illness and his lispy voice quavered by years, Cash's final album may be eclipsed by his storied discography but not by its raw emotion in this simple, acoustic production. The covers dominate the track list, but not generally to its detriment, especially his sombre tones of regret in Sting's "I Hung My Head" and his words only for June as he sings, earthily and unvarnished, of the "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." Plus, no one can bring the hoarse truculence of Tex Ritter to a modern audience ("Sam Hall") better than Johnny. (Then again, there's his schlocky version of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," more amusing for its novelty than its actual skill, though I think Cash got the joke more than Martin Gore did.) The album's flaws are not small in number, especially the poor arrangement of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and the warbly off-key deviations in Lennon-McCartney's "In My Life" and others, and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is a strange choice tonally (as is his duet with Nick Cave); stranger still is that two stronger tracks from the original double LP ("Wichita Lineman" and "Big Iron") are completely missing from the current single-LP pressings and CD releases, apparently never to return. Fortunately, one song was not cut: none captures the wonder of this album more than "Hurt," the Trent Reznor track that despite the same lyrics, even the same music, turns a despairing, venomous flirtation with darkness into something upbeat, even hopeful, carried by resonant chords, stark guitar and that defiant voice. No sinner and no saint, and let alone the same person, captured the fumbling, faltering journey to God better than this self-described "biggest sinner of them all" and I can think of very few performers who ended great careers on terms as magnificent as this death mask of music. In songs like the traditional "Danny Boy" and "Streets of Laredo," and the album's sunny, hopeful conclusion in "We'll Meet Again," we know he faced his end with peace knowing the Man in Black will be washed white as snow. Godspeed. (Content: drug references on "Hurt," adult themes on "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.")