Rosanne Cash Delivers Her Best Album Since Her Classic Black Cadillac
Rosanne Cash is one of those artists we take for granted. Another year, another tour, maybe another great album. So on one hand, her latest one The River & the Thread comes as no surprise. As a songwriter, her voice is wise, and knowing, and all too aware. On this one, both musically and lyrically, Richard Thompson is the obvious comparison – through imagery as loaded as a Civil War Gatling gun, Cash is always fighting off the gloom. As a singer, she just gets more and more nuanced: in the years since her last greatest shining moment, Black Cadillac, she’s using her resonant lower register a little more: Jenifer Jackson‘s recent work comes to mind. As expected, her husband and musical director John Leventhal’s guitar, bass and keyboard work is eclectic, and as subtle as the vocals, at the same time packing a soulful wallop. This is definitely the best thing Cash has done since 2006, which makes sense considering that the album revisits so many of the brooding themes that made Black Cadillac a genuine classic. Cash also has a New York show on Feb 22 at 7 PM at the Metrpoolitan Museum of Art, but it’s sold out. In the meantime, you can hear the album on Spotify.
The opening track A Feather’s Not a Bird sets the stage for most of what’s to come. Stark, noirish strings, minor keys and spare, bluesy lead guitar over a swaying beat anchor Cash’s litany of metaphors for a legacy that weighs heavily on her: “A feather’s a not a bird, the rain is not the sea, a stone is not a mountain but a river runs through me.” The Sunken Lands is more rustic – mandolin is the lead instrument – and reminds of Mary Lee Kortes, a narrative of toil and woe that could be set in the age of slavery…or the current age of near-slavery.
The ghost of Cash’s father continues to haunt her, particularly on Etta’s Tune, a bittersweet, vividly imagistic look at a conflicted family: “We kept the polished bass guitar, we kept the tickets and the reels of tape to remember who we are,” Cash recalls, with an understated anger for the loss of pretty much everything else. Then she switches gears with Modern Blue, a vintage 60s-style psych-folk number held aloft on a lush bed of acoustic guitars, like a Lee Hazelwood song but with better lyrics – and Carol Lipnik‘s swinging rhythm section of drummer Dan Rieser and bassist Tim Luntzel.
Tell Heaven sticks with the folk-rock, but more pensively, Cash assessing the dubious power of prayer: “The empty sky may never take our burdens,” she muses. The Long Way Home looks back to late 60s Jimmy Webb-style countrypolitan, and once again to Johnny Cash: “Summer rain was heavy, almost as heavy as your heart, a cavalcade of strangers came to tear your world apart.” Then World of Strange Design brings the Appalachian gothic back: it could be a harrowing tale of a returning soldier’s family falling apart, or simply a metaphorical tale about a guy who “Set off the minefield like you were rounding first.” Derek Trucks guests on guitar on that one.
With a string section (Dave Mansfield on violin and viola and Dave Eggar on cello) that begins pillowy and quickly turns ghostly, Night School is a haunted, restless look back at at a relationship that’s probably done for good: one of the most compelling things about Cash’s songwriting is that she always lets the images tell the story, tantalizing the listener and leaving open the possibility for multiple interpretations. By contrast, 50,000 Watts, a duet with Cory Chisel, employs layers and layers of guitars and electric piano in a jaunty tribute to gospel radio. The Nashville gothic reaches a peak with When the Master Calls the Roll, a death-fixated Civil War soldier’s tale. The album ends with Money Road, a mashup of fire-and-brimstone Bible imagery and 70s radio pop much in the same vein as Tom Petty’s Runaway. It almost goes without saying that this is one of the best albums of the year.