While the New Nashville clambers to churn out homogenous pap for the colicky masses, Johnny Cash once again displays fierce individualism with his latest release, American III: Solitary Man. In his almost 50 years of recording, alternately enjoying superstardom and marginalization by the music industry, Cash has relentlessly spoken to and from the heart of an American ideology, one that commiserates with the oppressed, with the cuckold and the cuckoldmaker, the guilty and the godless, and with the broken and the reborn. Cash, who claims this to be the last recording of his career, transcends trivial genre distinctions and takes an autobiographical stance. He tells his story by fully inhabiting the work of other musicians such as Tom Petty, Neil Diamond, Nick Cave and Bono, using their words to convey his notion of the world.
"Solitary Man" seems literal: Cash's gravelly voice, weathered by age and illness, resonates as true as it did back in 1956 when "I Walk the Line" burned, burned, burned into the hearts of Americans. And it's as if Cash speaks straight to us when he sings "I Won't Back Down" and "One." Then he reminds us that we can be strong and mortal and great and ready to move on with dignity when he sings, "Roll Around Heaven All Day." "Nobody" resonates with loneliness and mishap, while the album's closer, a souped-up arrangement of the traditional Appalachian ballad, "Wayfaring Stranger," conveys a deep despondence.
In case his previous recordings didn't say it directly enough, American III: Solitary Man tells us exactly, finally and frankly what it means to be Johnny Cash: It's a solemn and brilliant farewell from the original Man in Black.