Johnny Cash,
American 3: Solitary Man
(Universal, 2002)

Well, here we go again, the Cash-Rubin experiment No. 3. It has proven extraordinarily successful thus far, garnering Johnny two consecutive "Best Country Album" Grammies for the first two American Recordings albums. So I, perhaps like most other Cash fans, awaited this release with great anxiety and, while the album turned out to be a good one, I cannot say that I am entirely satisfied this time around.

Cash's voice is a bit thin throughout Solitary Man; whereas Cash blew the heck out of his vocal chords on Unchained's "Spiritual," perhaps the best ballad of his nearly 50-year career, Cash's snarling, robust barritone just never quite realizes itself here.

This is most obvious on his blunted efforts to hit the high notes on "Lucky Old Sun." It doesn't just sound like he has aged, we all do. And it doesn't just sound bad, it sounds like Cash's illness in recent years has taken more out of him than he cares to admit. While recording another album in the midst of that illness seems ambitious, it surely does nothing to hide the truth. If anything, a listen to Solitary Man confirms the press coverage that Cash habitually refutes.

The other notable mishap here is the sparse production. Rick Rubin's stripped-bare production on the strictly acoustic 1994 American Recordings seemed entirely appropriate, but the rocking 1996 follow-up foreshadowed even greater musical horizons. Not so here. While the covers of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" and Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man" are excellent folk renditions, they just beg for a fuller soundscape than Rubin allows. The pianos, organs and fiddles chiming in on songs like Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat" and the absolutely devastating "Wayfaring Stranger" are delicious, but only serve to highlight the missed opportunities on the spate of raw tracks that dominates the album.

Besides the above-mentioned folk tunes, Cash's cover of U2's superb ballad, "One," is great, but the adventure ride Rubin took with Petty and Mike Campbell on Unchained is unfortunately AWOL throughout Solitary Man.

Nonetheless, we should probably be counting our lucky stars for another release from the Man in Black. The press wastes no time in painting Cash's health condition every shade of bleak, and it really sounded like Cash's career had come to a halt. Solitary Man might be a good album of as much worth as its predecessors, but I would not go so far as to label it an obligatory purchase.

- Rambles
written by Gianmarc Manzione
published 3 May 2003

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