In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.
As grunge and alternative rock draped mainstream music in layers of flannel at the start of the ’90s, it didn’t seem like there was much room in the cultural zeitgeist for an aging icon like Johnny Cash. But when the country music maverick first laid the seeds of his partnership with Rick Rubin on 1994’s American Recordings, Cash, then 62, managed to fall in with a new audience of young listeners who took to his outlaw image. The formula was simple: Find a handful of carefully selected cover songs from the alternative rock canon and let Cash’s weighty baritone and an acoustic guitar do the rest.
By the time of Rubin and Cash’s third go-around on 1999’s American III: Solitary Man, the singer’s ailing health was beginning to show on record, but the chemistry between the two was hitting its stride. The withered weariness of Cash’s voice made the record’s themes of redemption and regret all the more staggeringly visceral, but his cover of Will Oldham/Bonnie Prince Billy’s “I See A Darkness” truly fired on all emotional cylinders. Reducing the upbeat stomp of Oldham’s original to nothing more than an acoustic guitar, Cash’s low speak-sing delivery, and Oldham’s backing vocals, the song paints the picture of a once larger-than-life figure staring his own mortality dead in the face, trying to make peace with himself and those around him before it’s too late. “Well I hope that someday buddy,” the singer laments, “we’ll have peace in our lives. Together or apart, alone or with our wives.” It’s a last stab at grace, but Cash’s ability to reinvent the song in his own wounded image made for a pretty cathartic swan song.