Adventuring through the Significant Albums of 2002 – forthcoming attractions style – and one record that jumps out is The Last Will And Testament Of Johnny Cash. Not that such a record has ever existed – the release schedule suggests American IV: The Man Comes Around to be a far stronger candidate for genuine album title – but I’m going to run with Last Will And Testament, if only because the reverberations have long been defined, in my perception if nowhere else.
One of the reasons the long player is such a vital format is that each LP has a gravitational pull. A start, a middle and an end, if you prefer; conjoined narratives that engage with the listener. The most successful albums – I’d argue – carry multiple focal points. Equilibrium, cohesion, a centre of gravity that doesn’t feel out-of-whack once the needle has dropped or the play button depressed.
The flip-side to which being content that doesn’t operate as part of the wider, album-length unit. Flavours that overpower the rest of the material, or detract from the whole. The Last Will And Testament American IV contains a few weak tracks; there are probably enough versions of ‘Danny Boy’ or ‘In My Life’ or ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ without further adding to the canon. Which is a pity, because when this record does work (the cover of Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’ for example, or ‘I Hung My Head’, which takes the asinine sterility of the Sting original and turns it into the type of Southern Gothic ballad instantly recognisable as Cash’s calling card), the tone is vibrant and gritty; the frailness in his voice can’t be ignored, but neither does this explicitly feel like the final album he’d be releasing in his lifetime.
Meanwhile: the Last Will And Testament theory; an element of American IV that very much feels out of whack – to the point where any emotional response that comes before is wiped away by the sheer force of alternate context. And it isn’t even the album’s fault; track #2 – ‘Hurt’ – is what any cover version worth its chips should be – an enhancement upon the original. Both the arrangement and Cash’s gnarled vocal inflexions cultivate subtleties beyond Trent Reznor’s angst-splinted template; it’s a much more effective statement.
‘Hurt’ operates within the parameters of its parent album; it is the accompanying video that exists as something else. A statement of finality so powerful, its central theme drifts and seeps across the broader, less-concentrated narratives of the record itself. Not tainting American IV – that would be the wrong word – but exerting an influence, a pull, those autumnal hues of gravitational distortion. Because the emotion on display – those strands exchanged between Johnny and June – these are acute acknowledgements of lives lived, and of journey’s end (the presumption here is that you’re familiar with the video, and that a frame-by-frame breakdown would be superfluous; if you’re one of the handful of souls yet to experience, you can find it here – go watch, have a wee cry, then begin this paragraph again. This film also has back-story, all serendipity amidst the bones of the long-closed House Of Cash museum).
Somewhere on this laptop there’s a half-finished novel I must get back to, one of the lines in the opening paragraph being: and somewhere, a halo of sadness had descended. And whilst I didn’t write that phrase with ‘Hurt’ in mind, it strikes me how apt a description of the whole American Recordings series this is; a single video redefining (or, more accurately, recontextualising) how certain records are experienced. Both June Carter Cash and The Man In Black himself passed away within months of the footage central to the video being shot. Both remembered in far wider (and more vibrant) circumstances. Both very much missed.