A dozen years ago today, the Billboard 200 welcomed a record that was greatly anticipated as the next in an acclaimed series, but no one knew quite what significance it would assume less than a year later. On November 23, 2002, ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’ 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 material (and the new title song) with traditional material and some strikingly adventurous covers. Of the new batch, one stood out as a daring and deeply personal reading, especially combined with its 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 a recording which resonates all the more today, some 11 years 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-honoured ‘Danny Boy,’ which was already more than a hundred years old by then. Not content with one startling modern rock remake, he 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 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.’