The real surprise about "American IV" isn't the occasionally square song choices, but that Johnny Cash sounds stronger than he has at any point since 1998's "Unchained."
On much of 2000's "Solitary Man" and his occasional non-album appearances since then, Cash had sounded older than seemed humanly possible. And God knows he never quite sounded young in the first place; not really. But The Man in Black at least sounds a lot less faded than he's otherwise sounded recently. Subtly backed by the likes of Randy Scruggs, Marty Stuart and members of Beck's band and Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, the new album is also Cash's starkest since 1994's "American Recordings." Drums appear only on one song (Cash's own "Tear Stained Letter"), and the backing usually amounts to little more than a guitar and perhaps one or two other instruments. And sometimes not even that; "Danny Boy" is simply Cash accompanied by a pipe organ.
The formula is one which has worked well for Cash over the past eight years; a few edgy covers (Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" and Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt"), some standards ("Danny Boy," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "We'll Meet Again"), a handful of new compositions (only one this time around; the title track) and new renditions of a few of his older compositions; in this instance 1957's "Give My Love to Rose," 1965's "Sam Hall" and 1972's "Tear Stained Letter." Little is added to any of the original versions, though "Sam Hall" certainly shows its share of spunk, and Cash still acquits himself decently on the other two.
Best of the album's three guest vocals is the sepulchral duet with Nick Cave on Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" on which Cave trades verses with Cash and turns out to have a real feel for country music. Faring less well are Don Henley's unnecessary appearance on his own "Desperado" and Fiona Apple's caterwauling on "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (though Cash himself turns in one of his album's strongest performances on the track - go figure).
If there's a bit of a sense that we've heard much of this before from Cash - surprising considering the willingness he's shown to experiment throughout his career - at least he sounds healthier than he has in recent years. All in all, something of a mixed bag, but far from a waste of time.