Wednesday, April 14, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘American III: Solitary Man,’ Johnny Cash (2000)

Following the recording of “Unchained,” Johnny Cash’s health started to seriously decline. The impact on his body and spirit are both evident in this, his next release.

"American III" is the first album of his career where Cash sounds frail. Though he can still muster much of his considerable bravado, his voice is shakier, his words slightly slurred at times—a marked difference from the bombast of “Unchained” four years earlier.

“American III” also marks a shift in theme and tone that would carry through the rest of his recording career. The choices here are significantly darker in content and interpretation, yet they are defiant and honest in the face of death. Look no further than opener “I Won’t Back Down,” supported by the man who wrote the song in the first place, Tom Petty. That sentiment could have titled this record and each of the remaining three Cash cut before succumbing to death in 2003.

Musically “American III” is a mixed bag and shows signs the American sessions were losing a little steam. The first half of this 14-song disc is outstanding, offering up some of his best work from this period. “I See A Darkness” is an epic masterpiece; Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” is filled with frank boldness—“I’ve got nothing left to lose, and I’m not afraid to die,” he bellows. “Solitary Man” was worthy of the Grammy it won and features one of the best guitar parts of any American recording. Cash's cover of U2’s “One” is simply gorgeous.

The second half, though, is filled mostly with sleepy acoustic numbers that lack the urgency and vitality of the original “American Recordings” album. “Field of Diamonds” is notable here as the last Cash song to feature June Carter before her death, while “Wayfaring Stranger" is an appropriately mournful finale. But there’s little else to get excited about in the final seven tracks.

Grade: B

Favorite Track: “One”

Other Favorite Track: “I See A Darkness”

Least Favorite Track: “Would You Lay With Me (In A Field of Stone)”

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