On what would have been Johnny Cash’s 84th birthday, the full, in-depth story behind the fourth instalment of The Man In Black’s iconic ‘American’ covers series uncovered…
'American IV: The Man Comes Around' is a testament to the inimitable power of Johnny Cash. Though the 2002 release predominantly featured a host of cover versions (from Depeche Mode to Sting), it's still lauded as a seminal work today, proving that Cash can flip any track on its head and make it his own. We take a look at the story of its creation...
Then without a record deal and at a low ebb in his career, Johnny Cash was approached by Rick Rubin in 1992 to discuss signing to the producer's American Records label, who were planning to give Cash a guitar and a microphone and let him "sing every song you want to record".
Largely recorded in Rubin's living room, the first, stripped-back 'American Recordings' album was released in 1994 to great acclaim, re-establishing Cash as a creative force. 1996’s ‘Unchained’ and 2000’s ‘American III: Solitary Man’ duly followed. ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’ would be the last album Cash released before his death in September 2003.
The stark, solemn black-and-white profile of Cash which adorns the cover was taken by photographer Martyn Atkins, who worked on all of the ‘American Recordings’ albums, and has also designed sleeves for the likes of Depeche Mode, The Teardrop Explodes and Echo & The Bunnymen.
At Rubin's suggestion, Cash sang 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' as a love song not to a person, but to God. "That idea really excited him," said the producer. "The idea was to give something a new point of view, or give it a touchstone."
The idea for the song 'The Man Comes Around' came from a dream of Cash's, where he was in Buckingham Palace and the Queen said to him, "Johnny Cash, you're just like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.”
'Hurt', the album's most famous track, had been suggested to Cash by Rubin on a number of occasions, but he was resistant towards recording it because he couldn't imagine reinterpreting the Nine Inch Nails original in his own style.
The video for ‘Hurt’ – which NME called the greatest ever made in 2011 – was partly filmed at the House of Cash museum in Hendersonville, Tennessee (which closed in 1999).
During recording, Cash struggled with pneumonia and autonomic neuropathy arising from his diabetes. "Sometimes I came to the studio and I couldn't sing,” he recalled shortly before his death. “I came in with no voice when I could have stayed at home and pouted in my room and cried in my beer or my milk, but I didn't let that happen."
The quote from 'The Man Comes Around' ("One of the four beasts sang, 'Come and see', and I saw/ And behold, a white horse") that opens the album is taken from Revelation 6:1-2, which describes John the Apostle’s vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Like ‘Hurt’, Depeche Mode's 1989 hit 'Personal Jesus' was another song suggested by Rubin. Cash was attracted by the song’s religious overtones and later called it "probably the most evangelical gospel song I ever recorded”.
Regret and redemption are the key themes of the album, and Sting’s 1996 murder ballad 'I Hung My Head' – about a man who accidentally kills someone and is made to face up to his crime – neatly encapsulates both.
NME's review at the time: "‘The Man Comes Around’ was the finest song Johnny Cash wrote in 20 years… sparse and telling and leaving Johnny sounding like an Old Testament prophet.” (Paul McNamee, reviewing ‘Johnny Cash: Unearthed’, September 12, 2005)
What we say now: "The sound of a troubled giant facing up to his own regrets, personal failings and looming mortality, 'American IV''s resonance is amplified by the knowledge that Cash would be dead within a year of its release. What a way to go out, though – with some of the best, most affecting music of his long career."
In 2008, Nine Inch nails singer Trent Reznor was quoted as saying, "Having Johnny Cash, one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time, want to cover your song, that's something that matters to me. It's not so much what other people think but the fact that this guy felt that it was worthy of interpreting."
In his own words: "We put more blood, sweat, and tears and love into this one than anything we've ever done. It reaches out even farther and in more directions than the others did." Johnny Cash, 2003