When the Billboard 200 welcomed a 2002 record that was greatly anticipated as the next in an acclaimed series, no one knew quite what significance it would assume less than a year later. American IV: The Man Comes Around was released on November 5 that year, and became the last Johnny Cash album released before his death.
Produced like the 1994, 1996 and 2000 albums in the American Recording series by Rick Rubin, the new set continued their theme of combining re-recorded Cash songs (and the forceful new title track) with traditional material and some strikingly adventurous covers. “The Man Comes Around” itself was described by Pitchfork as “an epic tale of apocalypse, interpreting Revelations with uplifting exuberance.” Q added that “Cash’s first composition for years [is] among the best he’s ever written.”
Of the new batch, one stood out as a daring and deeply personal reading, especially combined with Mark Romanek’s painfully honest, award-winning video. That, of course, was the Man In Black’s remake of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” which became perhaps the last great recording of his life, and which has resonated even more since he passed away at the age of 71 in September 2003.
The Man Comes Around also had Cash remaking pop ballad standards such as Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and The Beatles’ ‘In My Life’; everyone else from Sting and the Eagles to Hank Williams; and even the time-honored “Danny Boy,” which was already more than a hundred years old by then. Not content with one startling modern rock remake, Cash also tackled Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.”
A stellar list of contributors to the album included Don Henley, Billy Preston, Fiona Apple and Nick Cave. The Austin Chronicle wrote: “Considering his deteriorating health, it’s amazing Johnny Cash is even able to record these days, which may ultimately explain the elegant, austere beauty of The Man Comes Around.”
The album debuted on the Billboard 200 at No. 70 (itself his best showing on that survey since The Man In Black, in 1971), and climbed as high as No.22. That was easily the best performance to date by any of the American albums, but it was not until after Cash’s death that the fifth record in the run, American V; A Hundred Highways, became his first No.1 pop album since 1969’s Johnny Cash At San Quentin.
Speaking to Vanity Fair about the American series in 2004, Rick Rubin said: “I thought of the image of the Man in Black. [That] was a big part of who he was in real life, as well as a mythical image associated with him. I would always try to find songs that were suited for that.”
Buy or stream American IV: The Man Comes Around.