Having spent some time on the edge, we are rolling back toward the Gates of Edam and will be closing them soon. Not to be reopened — or at least not by us.
But we’ll all be there, just the same, on what’s been called that last busy day — won’t we? Well, here’s a song that’s enough to scare even a non-believer straight:
“The Man Comes Around” link for the e-mail people.
First things first: Turn it up. Produced of course by Rick Rubin for the last of the American recordings series, Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” is an amazing-sounding record, from the scratchy gramophone effect in the spoken intro to the immaculately clean guitars to the deep-voiced piano filling up the low end and sounding at times like a slow-tolling bell. Though he was only about 70, Cash was in poor health and already an old man when this was recorded, and his voice is an old man’s voice, with a slight quaver and increased sibilance. But the power is still there, and this is clearly a song that meant a great deal to the singer.
The lyrics have been more than adequately explicated elsewhere; it’s a mix of Biblical and personal references in one of the last songs Cash wrote, and it’s intended to be disturbing in the manner of some of the old revival hymns. Those were the songs that eventually led to the development of Southern gospel music. If “The Man Comes Around” fits into any genre at all, it’s Southern gospel — a tradition with which Cash was, of course intimately familiar.
“Old Time Religion” link. Just as a passing observation, it reflects just what an extraordinary celebrity Johnny Cash was that he could use that particularly unequivocal hymn (“Gimme that old-time religion/It’s good enough for me”) to introduce a lineup of gospel artists on national TV — in 1971.
Gospel though it may be, “The Man Comes Around” isn’t a hymn in the sense of being suited for congregational singing, or for singing in church at all — it’s too personal for that. For instance, the words “the whirlwind is in the thorn trees” are a reference to Cash himself, by way of the book of Job. It doesn’t appear to have been covered, which makes sense. What could any other singer possibly add?
If this was, as has been said, the very last song Johnny Cash wrote, it’s a remarkably apt note on which to exit — a tough-minded warning from a man of faith who never excepted himself from the ranks of sinners. But not, finally, without hope.