Tuesday, April 22, 2014

KD's Top 50, #50: Johnny Cash, American Recordings (1994)

I have kind of a private ritual involving this record, but it's not weird, so I'll go ahead and share it with you. Actually, scratch that--I guess maybe it is a little weird. But it's not gross-weird, so don't worry. Anyway.

Some records take a long time to sink in, and the relationship I have with those records is always somewhat complex. The tunes reveal themselves one by one, sometimes across multiple years, and as such the ultimate listening experiences affiliated with those albums, while powerful, end up seeming disjointed, if only because the songs are individually tied up in so many different circumstances. Radiohead's OK Computer, for example, is 3-4 full years of my life, beginning in the summer of 1997 when my cousin Joe and I would sit impatiently through the six-minute animated video for ''Paranoid Android'' in the hopes that something off Aerosmith's Nine Lives would be soon to follow (lads of taste we were and how) up through late 2001 when my friend Jason and I would attempt to wow our friends and coworkers with our acoustic two-part harmony version of ''Lucky'' in the parking lots of 24-hour chain restaurants at 1:00 in the morning. Pit stops along the way included twisting my ankle while executing a one-man mosh pit to ''Electioneering,'' trying to teach myself the chords to ''Subterranean Homesick Alien'' on the guitar and failing miserably, and a whole lot of listening to ''Let Down'' in the dark on headphones while feeling sorry for myself. I love every single song on that record now, but for me it didn't initially coalesce as an album, as it were--it unfolded as a series of individual pieces of work that happened to be on the same CD that when played now in sequence fall into place as a kind of patchwork quilt of my own personal neuroses and happy memories. And like a lot my favorite records, it's something I have to work up to listening to if I plan on doing so in a single sitting.

Johnny Cash's American Recordings was and is the complete opposite of this. Delivered to me by way of Secret Santa exchange on Christmas Eve 2003 (same friend that used to play Loretta to my Conway on ''Lucky'' in the last paragraph), it is not an intricately interwoven program of singular personal anecdotes but rather a fixed, collective 45 minutes on the most magical night of the year while we caravanned around town trying to find a place to get food that was open past 7pm (we eventually settled on IHOP--an anticlimax if ever there was one). This probably isn't terribly surprising given the nature of the record, a guy-and-his-guitar affair that no doubt was intended specifically to be processed this way, as though the Man in Black himself was right there in the passenger seat of your 1995 Dodge Intrepid serenading you with songs about God, death, Vietnam, and horses. But the lasting effect of this immediacy, as it is with many records that captivate me completely from start to finish on first listen, is that it renders the record inseparable from where I was and what I was doing during that inaugural spin, dictating not only what I feel emotionally and even empirically when I play the record, but also when I feel compelled to put the record on at all, which is why I now have this weird tradition of listening to American Recordings every Christmas Eve (or early Christmas morning, before everyone else wakes up, lest I forget).

This is bizarre to me not only because American Recordings is not a remotely Christmas-y record, but because it's not even a particularly wintry one--its specific brand of stark minimalism is perfectly reflected by the album cover, which is a sepia-toned image of Cash looking like some kind of decrepit scarecrow, standing next to his dogs in front of some wheat stalks and other assorted varieties of overgrown foliage. This is back porch hillbilly folk, even though some of the songs are by the likes of Nick Lowe, Leonard Cohen, and Glenn Danzig--in these hands, those compositions have no choice but to become back porch hillbilly folk, which will always feel sweaty, dusty, rural, maybe even a little surly. Compare it to Neil Young's recently released Live at the Cellar Door album, which is equally sparse in arrangement but comparatively polite and about sixty degrees colder (probably just because we know Neil is from Canada)--if Rick Rubin was trying to play up Cash's ''salt-of-the-earth shtick'' (as per Robert Christgau's initial criticism of the album), it's only because salt-of-the-earth shtick came so naturally to Cash, and at this particular juncture in his career had been long enough neglected to make the gesture feel like a reawakening of sorts. Moot point for me, as I didn't hear the thing until well after the ''Hurt'' video and for that matter not until a few months after Cash was dead, but not lost on me as I traversed the snow-blanketed highways of civilized Illinois unable to shake the feeling that instead I should really be on a farm somewhere in Tennessee helping pa with the chores. I grew up on hair-metal and grunge--buying into shtick is simply hardwired into how I process music.

And yet, in the end what American Recordings signifies for me is not its ability to channel time and place but its ability to transcend them, something I think of every year as I remain awake long after the rest of the family has fallen asleep, staring at the gifts under the tree and listening to a dead country singer sing me songs of redemption and old world humility. The one that always feels especially poignant is ''Oh Bury Me Not (Introduction: A Cowboy's Prayer),'' originally recorded in partial form by Cash in 1965, though the desolation of the revamped version suits the introductory lyrics far better--it feels like the sort of petition one would lay before God in solitude, its verse so simple and beautiful yet ultimately for no one to hear, the gesture of assembling the prayer in song form becoming a prayer unto itself, the singer unpretentiously acknowledging his gift before the gift-giver. It amply washes my palate of the taste of Danzig's asinine ''Thirteen,'' probably the only song in the whole American series I genuinely hate (more Danzig's fault than Cash's, I reckon). This album is also the first time Tom Waits's brilliant ''Down There By the Train'' (written by Waits specifically for Cash to sing) appeared to the public, and though Cash's version lacks the depth and mystery of the grainy version Waits would later record for his outtakes collection Orphans, its themes are pertinent to the whole and the power of the songwriting comes across. Apart from that I tend to go for the swift and the catchy--the two-minute craftsman's triumph that is ''Let the Train Blow the Whistle,'' and the live version of ''Tennessee Stud,'' which I'd been dying to hear a good version of ever since I'd witnessed Keller Williams and Bill Nershi jam-band any virtue right out of it at the first Bonnaroo in the summer of 2002.

American Recordings would prove to be a template for the kind of record that Cash would make until he died, and that he never really sought to deviate from its formula speaks well of how he perceived its artistic success. Other volumes in the series are more successful at certain things--for stomp and wallop, proceed directly to Unchained (the unnumbered second volume), a full-band romp featuring Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as Cash's backing entourage and easily the most flatly enjoyable installment in the American canon; and for sheer emotion, there's no beating American V: A Hundred Highways or American VI: Ain't No Grave, a sleeper whose understated power has grown unexpectedly since its posthumous release in 2010. Yet there are moments in the final volumes where the emphasis on Cash's frailty feels almost exploitative, a case of the artist not working to serve the material but rather the other way around, a self-consciousness which was all but transparent after the success of ''Hurt.'' And there are times when Unchained almost feels too much like classic Cash--it's a good bet that most of the casual listeners who heard ''I've Been Everywhere'' in that truck commercial just assumed the recording was every bit as old as ''I Walk the Line,'' which is a testament to Cash's physical durability to that point but ultimately wasn't what the American series was about. There's a balance between the two extremes in this first volume that he never quite strikes again on any of the subsequent ones, a fine line--difficult to pinpoint when trying, as those subsequent volumes indeed prove--between unfiltered grit and honest, deeply human vulnerability.  Lastly it's that sense of casual recitation that comes across so effortlessly, regardless of how cunning a contrivance it may or may not have been; you get the feeling that the mission behind this project in 1994 was for Cash to simply do this forever, recording whatever he wanted--covers, new originals, old originals--whenever he wanted because ultimately they're all just songs and ultimately all he had to do was play 'em. This record is a snapshot of that moment of infinity--ultimately the thirteen songs here could be any thirteen, which is why these particular thirteen achieve a sort of serendipitous flow. But it's also a snapshot of an equally specific moment in the life of a listener, one that I will probably seek to relive as long as I'm around to try.

**This post is part of my Top 50 Favorite Albums series. Read more about that here.