Testosterone, alas, has seen better days. Male rock stars appear in magazines wearing dresses, advertise themselves as losers. Shoegazers trip over mope rockers in their effort to flee reality’s bite. Inarticulate fury substitutes for focused masculine force. Grrrls get to riot; boys — apart, of course, from gangsta rappers, bless them — whine about their confusion, especially over (sigh) success.
Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash stand to remind us that such was not always the case. In his best singing — which is to say, the best popular singing America has produced in this century — Sinatra epitomizes an urban ideal of manly sophistication. Poised and assured, he inhabits songs of immense complexity, remaining alert to their formal structure while gracefully intuiting the demands of the emotional moment.
Sinatra was not born to such a polished manner. He is the son of immigrants and sensed a route out of his narrow world in the style of his perceived social “betters.” Cole Porter, he seemed to believe, would lead him out of Hoboken. That made for contradictions. Throughout his career, Sinatra has never been fully able to conceal the ingratiating working-class kid (“everybody’s ‘Pal Joey,’ the King of Ring-a-ding-ding,” as James Isaacs puts it in his superb liner notes to Live in Paris) who lurks within the supreme mastery of his art.
Cash is cut from a deeper and perhaps darker source in the American grain. The son of an Arkansas sharecropping family, he is an unapologetic loner, the fabled man in black, battling for his soul against demons both outside and within him. He has rambled through a lifetime of grimly indulgent Saturday nights, driven to further excesses by the ravaging moral glare of Sunday morning coming down.
Cash is Southern, so his strength lies in a polite reserve that masks an implacable will. A hardscrabble life taught him early on to do without and not complain, so he has made the absolute most of the very least — specifically, he has made a rumbling baritone voice with nonexistent range and a limited guitar technique expressive of a dignified worldview. If aspiration excited Sinatra’s genius, it has injured Cash’s. When Cash has tried to modernize, to sweeten his sound — or, worse, to embrace an image of himself as a churchgoin’, crowd-pleasin’, aw-shucks family man — he has betrayed his art.
Two new albums capture each of these complicated men near their peaks. Sinatra and Sextet: Live in Paris, recorded in 1962 and now released for the first time, offers the finest available glimpse of the singer onstage: easy, affable and in command. The instinctively tasteful six-piece combo supporting him — distinguished particularly by pianist Bill Miller and guitarist Al Viola — may well prove more congenial to contemporary ears than the orchestras that typically back him. And as for the Voice, well, what need be said? It’s Sinatra, at 46, exploring the mature phase of his extraordinary power. Teen idol Frankie’s angelic yearning had long been left behind, replaced by a more knowing, if equally rapturous, vision of adult romance. “Love is lovelier the second time around,” he sings, and in this set consisting almost exclusively of love songs, he makes a moving case.
As does every live album, Live in Paris exchanges the aural perfection of the singer’s classic studio performances for the immediate rush of the creative instant. It’s fascinating, from that vantage, to hear Sinatra race through a jumpy 1:11 rendition of Johnny Mercer’s “Goody, Goody” as a kind of warm-up before settling into more measured takes on “Imagination” and “At Long Last Love” and then a transporting “Moonlight in Vermont.”
Given a microphone to speak into, however, Sinatra can always be counted on to embarrass himself. He follows a spellbinding “Ol’ Man River” with an asinine comment that the song is about “Sammy Davis’ people” and interrupts a gently swinging “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” to complain that the onion soup he ate before the show is repeating on him.
The concert’s spectacular defining turn comes in a duet with pianist Miller on Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s “One for My Baby.” After a stupefying introduction (“cherchez la femme, which means in French ‘Why doncha share da broad wit’ me?'”), Sinatra delivers the song — long one of his signatures — as if he’d never sung it before in his life.
Miller’s playing is astute and conversational, commenting on, responding to, highlighting phrases of and even, at times, seeming to chuckle sympathetically at the singer’s unfolding tale of loneliness and vanished love. “I could tell you a lot/But that’s not in a gentleman’s code,” Sinatra sings, but by the time he warns that “this torch that I’ve found/It’s gotta be drowned/Or it’s gonna explode,” the depth of the singer’s pain — and his potential for violence, self-directed or otherwise — is palpable. Sinatra ends the tune with a haunted look down the “very, very long” road home, and this stunning remembrance of things past is complete.
If anything, Johnny Cash’s American Recordings is an even more crowning achievement than Live in Paris, due in large part to the album’s producer (and American Recordings owner) Rick Rubin. Rubin’s résumé as producer of groundbreaking records by Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, the Black Crowes, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mick Jagger is stellar, and Cash can now be added to that list.
A noted (and somewhat self-conscious) firebrand, Rubin not only had the intelligence to sign Cash, who is now 62, to his label of hormone-addled upstarts, but he knew exactly the sort of album Cash needed to make. American Recordings is that album in spades: Cash, alone with an acoustic guitar, confronting traditional folk songs, his own tunes and songs by the likes of Leonard Cohen, Glenn Danzig and Tom Waits with biblical intensity. “Recorded in Rick’s living room and at Johnny Cash’s cabin,” the credit reads (with two tracks recorded live last year at the Viper Room in Los Angeles). In those small spaces, Cash and Rubin got it all: American Recordings is at once monumental and viscerally intimate, fiercely true to the legend of Johnny Cash and entirely contemporary.
American Recordings is no joy ride, though. The album carves a brutal trail, marked by curses of fate (Glenn Danzig’s “Thirteen”), unforgiving self-examination (Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me,” Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”), love wars (“Dehlia’s Gone”), political wars (“Drive On”) and desperate bids for spiritual salvation (Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord” and Cash’s own “Redemption” and “Like a Soldier”). In Rubin’s ruthlessly unadorned, dry-as-dust settings, Cash moves with stoic fury. His voice is the best it has sounded in more than 30 years (think “I Walk the Line,” think “Ring of Fire”), and he sings with a control reminiscent of Hemingway’s writing: Not a feeling is flaunted, not a jot of sentimentality is permitted, but every quaver, every hesitation, every shift in volume, every catch in a line resonates like a private apocalypse.
The intermittent charm of Duets notwithstanding, Sinatra’s magnificent career is over. Sinatra and Sextet: Live in Paris is a souvenir from his days of radiance, when the world knew no greater singer. Sixteen years younger than Sinatra, Cash has made what is unquestionably one of his best albums. American Recordings will earn him a time of well-deserved distinction in which his work will reach an eager new audience. But as different as their places are now — and as different as their lives have been — Sinatra and Cash are brothers, blood on blood. Proud, independent, unreconstructed, these two men did it their way.