Even the best good ideas can get pushed too far, and for Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man is one Rick Rubin-built cover album over the line. The point with the Cash-Rubin series, which started in 1994 with American Recordings and continued with 1996’s Unchained, isn’t really transformation, as Willie Nelson has done with his recent cover treatments of reggae and blues. The point is that Cash’s baritone (still able, despite the onset of a neurological disorder) is elemental, the marrow of sadness; simply to bestow that dark voice on moody songs by a range of songwriters is statement enough.
Cash, solemn and ponderous, is the same in all the different rooms on this album, whether he’s covering Neil Diamond or David Allan Coe or Will Oldham or the vaudevillian Bert Williams or himself. So the onus here lies on the production: I can’t believe I’m making this complaint of a country record — they’re usually so overproduced — but Rick Rubin’s work is too timid; mostly, the shy combos of guitar, fiddle and accordion, or Benmont Tench’s subliminal contributions on keyboards, make up the kind of severe meal that one is forced to think of as “tasteful.”
It takes Nick Cave and Mick Harvey’s overpoetic “The Mercy Seat,” smack in the middle of the album, to represent what the album could have achieved: The song has a layered production, with organ, regular and tack piano, and accordion swelling and receding under Cash’s onrushing, Leonard Cohen-like delivery. It’s the moment of the greatest artistic risk; by the end of the record, we’re back again to offhand drawing-room performances with the beautiful traditional song “Wayfaring Stranger.”
There’s nothing wrong with drawing-room performances; I can quickly think of a dozen country singers who ought to make a record like this. Solitary Man is good — better than good. But there are issues of repertory here; when you end up with Traveling Wilburys songs alongside pieces of silver like Cash’s “Wayfaring Stranger,” you start wondering how we got here.