“We pray to the God/ of collateral children,” sings Rosanne Cash in her verse of “8 Gods of Harlem,” a standout on her 14th studio album that enlists Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Costello as co-writers, each singing a verse in a narrative constellation involving a young man’s death. The song is ghosted by headlines of failed gun-safety legislation, dubious police shootings and senseless military pursuits, and it’s an object lesson in how to engage a national crisis without histrionics or mincing words.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise: Cash is one of the most ambitious and literary songwriters of her generation — along with her back catalog of LPs (start with 1990’s Interiors), see the story collection Bodies of Water and her memoir, Composed. But she goes especially deep on this set. Sometimes the songs appear to conjure autobiography, like “Everyone But Me,” which involves the loss of a mother and father. Other times she puts more distance between self and subject. The title track, co-written with kindred spirit Sam Phillips, is a meditation that shifts perspective between first and third person with echoes of the Kavanaugh hearings and #MeToo — “Versions of the third degree,” Cash sings over a blues processional, “yours and hers and mine.”
All humans have father issues, and as the daughter of Johnny, Rosanne Cash’s are particular to life in a country music dynasty (she’s also step-daughter of June Carter and ex-wife of Rodney Crowell). But they don’t define her art, however much they inform it. She remains hard to categorize, refracting country alongside rock, folk and other elements befitting a longtime resident of New York City’s melting pot. And her most beautiful work can lean into the abstract. “Particle and Wave” is an extended metaphor involving physics, suffering and time.
The album’s dark lodestar is “This Is My Least Favorite Life,” a sweetly grim waltz with an Eastern European lilt, Brechtian existentialism and a little Tom Waits-ian surrealism. “The station pulls away from the train/ the blue pulls away from the sky,” she sings, conjuring an emotional dislocation that may feel familiar right about now. But in her narrative hands, it’s comforting not to be traveling alone.