Album Review: Johnny Cash and Various Artists – ‘Forever Words’

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This is a re-uploaded post from Swamp Opera. 

While many would not label Out Among The Stars as Johnny Cash’s all-time best work, I consider it a landmark moment in my life. You see, I never got to be “excited” for a new Cash album, and I’m guessing a few of you out there know the same feeling.

I never would have imagined that feeling would come full circle. Of course, back in 2014 when that album came out, I was excited to hear Cash and only Cash. This time however, various artists have brought to life old poems that were left behind by him in the form of handwritten letters, notebooks, journals and manuscripts.

As such, it’s hard to call this a “tribute” album in the traditional sense. Most of these songs have never been heard before, let alone heard by Cash himself. Still, it’s not hard to imagine Cash performing these songs in his signature black attire in an intimate setting.

They say that music is poetry set to music, but I’d still argue there’s a bigger difference between the two. Poems allow you to get wrapped up (or lost) in the imagery and nuance of the word structure. In other words, they suck you in to make you feel something. Not every single song does that, not even the most serious of affairs.

At times depressing and other times lighter, Forever Words opens with a fitting reading by Kris Kristofferson (because after all, it is poetry first and foremost), something that sets the tone for the remainder of the material.

The most noticeable element about this album is its production. Subtle, low-key, quiet and reflective – these are the words that come to mind when hearing this. The liquid banjo that seeps through on the Kacey Musgraves and Ruston Kelly collaboration, “To June This Morning” feels like something Cash wrote in the morning (true to its name). The crisp morning imagery couples nicely with the pair’s nice harmonies, even if Musgraves’ vocals could have afforded to be mixed a little louder.

The first half of this album features some truly excellent songs, with a few even being strong contenders for “song of the year” with their complete packages. “Gold All Over The Ground” by Brad Paisley (which first appeared on his 2017 album, Love & War) continues to be a highlight. While the language shows its age (a little badly in some spots), Paisley’s convincing, passionate performance continues to make this shine.

Continuing the rootsy nature of this album is Alison Krauss and Union Station’s take on “The Captain’s Daughter,” a rather odd but refreshing perspective on a love song. What appears to be a “Romeo and Juliet” sequence turns into a song that brilliantly shifts perspectives between the boy and girl. They’re not perfect for each other, and the song gives no indication that they’ll actually be together in the end. Leave it to Cash to make a love song a refreshing bummer (and for its somber nature, Krauss is an excellent candidate to handle this song).

The crown jewel on the project comes through in the disturbing “You Never Knew My Mind” sung by Chris Cornell. While this was written at some point by Cash, it’s hard not to be biased and look at this through the lens of its posthumous perspective … in both men’s cases. Of course, that disturbing quality is what makes it seem all the more real and emotional. It’s amazing how much of a gut-punch that one line (the title) brings to the table or how much it says with so little, effectively portraying the masquerade we all sometimes put up to make others happy. The mask we wear however differs on our perspective on life.

Admittedly the album can get somewhat scattershot after this point. While “Jellico Coal Man” utilizes an interesting bass riff and T-Bone Burnett’s huskier delivery to make up for an otherwise “alright” song, “The Walking Wounded” feels like something Cash wrote 100 times before a lot better (particularly with “Man In Black”). Of course Rosanne Cash’s delivery is sincere and passionate enough, but lyrically it’s still clichéd.

“Them Double Blues” by John Mellencamp also feels like a throwaway track, with a silly, somewhat empty theme not helped by his admittedly lackluster vocal delivery. “Body on Body,” while perfect for Jewel’s voice also feels a tad sleepy and dragged on longer than it should.

Things pick up a little bit with Elvis Costello’s take on “I’ll Still Love You,” a song that feels like it came from an old movie with the classic sounding strings, older-sounding trumpet and piano. Admittedly Costello’s delivery can at times hold this back, but this is an otherwise interesting and different take on a song.

Of course, Dailey and Vincent keep it rolling with the religiously bluegrass jam, “He Bore It All” (I dare you not to get this stuck in your head). I’m With Her also showcase their harmonies off better than anything from their debut album on “Chinky Pin Hill,” another track that utilizes outdoor imagery to paint a picture. In this case, getting lost in the wonders of the forest is a metaphor for stumbling through life at times, even with the one we love by our side.

On its own merit, “Goin’ Goin’ Gone” is a fine, somewhat weird blend of electronic music and soul performed by Robert Glasper, Ro James and Anu Sun. While the sleepy fusion of sounds is a little too bright to mix with the (quite frankly) bleak, disturbing lyrical imagery, it builds up nicely to eradicate any initial stumbling it had. In the context of this album though, it sounds a little too jarring and different to mesh well with the other tracks. While Forever Words is not by any means the most cohesive project of 2018, this still detracts from the experience.

At the very least, the album ends on a high note with Jamey Johnson’s take on “Spirit Rider.” (On a sidenote, I’m fairly certain we have enough Johnson tracks from other albums by this point for him to make his own darn album … ) The organ and reverb give this a nice spiritual feel to it, ending nicely in a fitting way that truly honors Cash as he was (and still is today). Johnson was the perfect candidate for this song.

Overall, while Forever Words drags on considerably long (at 16 tracks it’s no surprise) and can sometimes be a little too sleepy or miss the mark, it’s an otherwise fine, fitting homage to Cash’s life. With the number of highlights here, it’s only for our own benefit that these poems have been unearthed for all to hear, because everyone is better off for having more Cash music poetry in their lives.

(6/10)

Producers: Anu Sun, Steve Berkowitz, T-Bone Burnett, John Carter Cash, Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Robert Glaser, I’m With Her, John Jackson, Gary Louris, John Mellencamp, Brendan O’Brien, Gary Paczosa

Album highlights: “You Never Knew My Mind” (Chris Cornell), “The Captain’s Daughter” (Alison Krauss & Union Station), “Gold All Over The Ground” (Brad Paisley), “He Bore It All” (Dailey & Vincent), “Chinky Pin Hill” (I’m With Her)

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