Rosanne Cash is Johnny Cash’s daughter, and for once she doesn’t want anyone to forget it. A talented performer who achieved success in spite of (rather than due to) her famous parentage, Ms. Cash has always been a confessional songwriter. But her latest effort, the searing “Black Cadillac,” makes her previous albums (even 1990’s stunning “Interiors”) seem downright introverted. In memory of the 2003 deaths of her stepmother, June Carter Cash, and her father, she fervently channels her grief into 12 brutally emotional tracks chronicling the lives of the Cashes.
Though the album is dedicated to the memory not only of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, but also of Rosanne Cash’s mother Vivian Liberto Cash Distin (who passed away last May while Cash was completing the album), it’s the Man in Black whose presence haunts “Black Cadillac.” Certainly, the album’s lyrics are biographical sketches, but Johnny Cash’s unmistakable influence makes him an absent costar. Two tracks feature old audio recordings of Johnny himself urging the toddler Rosanne to speak, and the title track quotes the horns of his classic “Ring of Fire” (penned, admittedly, by June). Even the album art pays tribute to Papa Cash, from the back-cover image of a Cadillac ostensibly carrying his coffin away, to a locket containing a guitar pick engraved with his name.
But “Black Cadillac” breaks the mold of paternal odes. Neither the regret of Mike and the Mechanics’ “The Living Years” nor the bitter sadness of Harvey Danger’s “Jack the Lion,” for example, predominates. Cash’s is a mature and multifaceted portrait of her family and history. She draws on her 50 years as intelligently and movingly as any twentysomething songwriter ever has. “Black Cadillac” is the type of album for which AAA (adult album alternative) radio stations were invented.
Of course, Ms. Cash’s fans have come to expect this type of nuanced portrayal. “Interiors,” her poignant and detailed account of her divorce from Rodney Crowell, is a critically acclaimed pop gem, and “Black Cadillac” lacks even the veneer of metaphor that partially obscured the autobiography of her previous albums. Those familiar with Johnny Cash’s story (even if through the 2005 film “Walk the Line” that Rosanne Cash publicly decried) will recognize the “House on the Lake” that Johnny and June Carter Cash shared in Tennessee.
Perhaps most interesting, lyrically, about “Black Cadillac” is its extended examination of faith and religion. This exploration is hardly new territory for Cash, but she delves far deeper than in past efforts. Despite some sort of faith in existence outside of Earthly life (evidenced in the admittedly saccharine “I Was Watching You”) Cash bitterly scorns religion in “Like Fugitives” (“It’s a strange new world we live in/ Where the church leads you to hell … I don’t want your tired religion/ I’m not a soul you need to save”) and “World without Sound” (“I wish I was a Christian/ and knew what to believe/ I could learn a lot of rules/ to put my mind at ease”). At the same time, she quotes “We Three Kings” in “The World Unseen.”
Amid this lyrical retelling of her family’s history, Rosanne Cash’s music often gets lost behind the story. This is partially a blessing in disguise. To an extent, “Black Cadillac” is more textured than previous efforts, and after years of evolution away from country and more toward adult-pop, Cash has wisely taken several steps back (as well as a few sidesteps). The bluesy “Burn Down This Town” is a standout track in this regard, from the twanging guitar acting as a counterpoint to her low vocals, to the background chorus of soulful “oh, ohs.”
Still, the album is, at least musically, largely safe. The opening of “Like Fugitives,” for example, occupies the same vague musical space as much of Death Cab for Cutie’s lackluster “Plans,” and the countrified chorus hardly helps. Thankfully, the lyrics save this track. “Like a Wave,” a wisp of a song that lasts just long enough for listeners to realize its musical insubstantiality, is unfortunately not as successful. And “God is in the Roses” fails as a country ballad, largely due to its unoriginal conclusion — a weak amalgamation of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” and Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis.”
The album’s failure to take chances may ultimately be for the best, though. Unlike many other artists reviewed in these pages, Cash will not, for example, be appearing with the up-and-comers and indie heavyweights at the SXSW festival in Austin this month. Thankfully, she is content to refine her craft with another successful chapter in her storied career.