here is a faint hint of sound at the opening of Rosanne Cash’s new album Black Cadillac. With an ear close to the speaker, the distant scratch of noise becomes recognizable as the velvet growl of Cash’s father, Johnny, as he pleads softly to his young daughter, Rosanne, to utter her first words. It is a subtle sentiment, and somewhat of a breathless moment on an album that pays tribute to her late father Johnny, mother Vivian, and stepmother June Carter. On her first album since their passing, Cash takes time to recapture these relationships through simple, detailed moments; at times with grief, and other times with the joy of their memory.
On the title track, Cash suspends the listener with her slightly charred, grieving voice, as she watches the car her father drove when she was a little girl carry him to his final resting place. Though this is subject matter at its heaviest, it resists a depressing tone. Cash’s stripped, concentrated lyrics deliver a cold reality, but even when her heart sinks, her voice is never weighed down. Thankfully though, there isn’t pressure for her to reverse the sense of loneliness she feels; just to watch it, calm, numb, and slow.
Having expressed ill feelings towards the portrayal of her parents’ relationship in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, Cash lets the song “I Was Watching You” reveal the pure moments of her parents relationship rather than focus on bitter times. With steady, time-to-breathe piano in between the verses, she takes on an omniscient perspective, remarking distantly on the love her parents once shared. “Burn Down this Town” follows with a dark-cloud, old spiritual tone reminiscent of the classic “Wade in the Water.” With its ominous chanting, fire—much like a river’s water—becomes a means of escaping one’s trouble, and the pain of the past.
If “I Was Watching You” looked upon her parents’ lives with a dim, tender reminiscence, “God Is In the Roses” is the first song where one can imagine a brighter light returning to Cash’s eyes. The old folk wisdom of the title delivers a message of renewed hope, and as she describes a scene of sun on the cemetery, it becomes clear she is growing comfortable in a place that once meant only grief. Roses—a symbol that reoccurs throughout the record—noticeably bear a strong connection to her parents. Traditionally brought to graves, they are a way of connecting life to death, especially when you take into consideration the rose garden Cash mentions later on at her childhood home. Then again, being that her name is Rosanne, it can only be assumed roses were something her parents loved as well, which makes it even more evident as to why they would become a medium for her solace.
In “House on the Lake,” Cash looks back on the home of her childhood. As she describes empty bedrooms, the helpless feeling that there’s nothing left to take, in any other case, could be seen as solely directed towards the feeling of emptiness itself. However, here, it could be seen as a comment upon the invasion Cash may have felt at the hands of Hollywood. Her disdain reveals itself again in the song “Like Fugitives” where Cash comments, in few, strong words, upon the manipulation of the big screen. It’s something as viewers we realize, but lose a grasp of in our suspension of disbelief: How the people who actually lived through a story tend to fade towards the background, while complete strangers use whatever bits and pieces of their lives to create a truth that suits their needs best that will move a plot along. And if you’ve seen Walk the Line, it’s true you’ll have strange visuals to accompany these songs that just wouldn’t be there otherwise. For instance, it’s an odd circumstance when you picture someone’s dad as Joaquin Phoenix, backing a tractor into the same lake described in a song. On the other hand, having the film’s pretext connects the listener even closer to these songs, and encourages a search for truth and understanding. That said, there are benefits to the bizarre situation as well.
On “The World Unseen” Cash describes how these losses have brought her a newfound sense of mortality, along with a sense of surprise at how strong she can be, while at the same time, feeling as lonely as she’s ever felt. In a standout moment, she describes a mirror in the hall from her father’s empty room… only to suddenly hear it fall. Much like the sense carried though the album, rather than losing herself in shatters—desperately trying to envision her father through broken pieces of memory—she opts to find her father through music: through his songs, his guitar, but especially the songs they sang together. Cash’s realization traces the listener back to those few short words at the beginning of the album. And as Johnny tries, in a sense, to give Rosanne words to encourage her voice, this song is a way for Rosanne to tell her father that he has done so. Along with her mother and stepmother, he has given her more strength, and more words than could ever be expected.
Reviewed by: Sue Bell
Reviewed on: 2006-02-10