It's tough to review anything by Johnny Cash. Do you review the music or the myth? Do you hold it to the standard of his best religious work or his best murderous work? Do you judge the songs written by rock legends the same way as you judge the songs written by Cash?
Producer Rick Rubin probably understood the mystique of Johnny Cash better than anyone else. Like Cash, Rubin is legendary for being a musical badass, and that makes it even harder to objectively critique the music these two men created together.
The Man Comes Around contains some of the most inspired work of Cash's career. And it, uh, has some other stuff that probably doesn't even deserve to be called "less inspired." Which, again, brings up the question of how to rate a Johnny Cash album?
Does his chilling performance of "Hurt" make up for the comparatively bland "Bridge Over Troubled Water?" Do the self-penned "The Man Comes Around" and "Tear Stained Letter" (both of which can stand with his best work) make up for the lyrical clichés of Sting's "I Hung My Head?" Does his heartbreaking delivery on "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" make up for the flaccid renditions of "In My Life" and "Desperado?" Do Nick Cave's striking backups on "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" make up for Fiona Apple's bizarre harmonies on "Bridge Over Troubled Water?" What is a listener to do with "Sam Hall," which sounds like it could've come straight from the Folsom or San Quentin sessions, or "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," which hints of a man who knows his time with his beloved wife is drawing to a close?
With these kinds of contradictions, what is a listener to do? It's simple, really: just listen.
There's nothing on The Man Comes Around that shouldn't be heard. There's a lot of filler, but there are some extremely strong moments, too. The strongest of those -- "Hurt" -- defines both the music and the myth of Johnny Cash as well as anything he ever recorded.
The design is stark, the photos are beautiful, and Cash's liner notes give insight into the man's mindset during these sessions.
Listen if you like: music.
If it were food, it'd be: Thanksgiving dinner. You may not like every part of the meal, and somebody obviously cooked the corn way too long, but the turkey is perfect and the sweet potatoes melt in your mouth. Best of all, Uncle John is sitting at the head of the table and telling some of the best stories you'll ever hear.