House Burning Down

Embracing and synthesizing the past with Rosanne Cash.

The image of a fiery Tennessee countryside, set ablaze by a speed-tweaked Johnny Cash and reflected in the eyes of his 9-year-old daughter Rosanne, is as hard to shake as it is to contemplate. No wonder she waited till John passed before siphoning this memory into “Burn Down This Town,” and no wonder that song goads her father from a safe emotional distance, as though coolly simulated empathy will counter welling resentment. In fact, the whole of Rosanne’s new Black Cadillac (Capitol) is less a tribute to the Cash family legacy than the singer’s attempt to revisit the past without letting it consume her.

That project plays to her lyrical strengths. Rosanne Cash is easily the vaguest contemporary songwriter I admire, never content to affix her emotional life to a concrete detail when there’s a conceptual generalization or diffuse symbol on hand. But Black Cadillac sounds like a companion piece to Cash’s most personal album, Interiors, and it fulfills the promise of the writing style she introduced there. Recently reissued (alongside her first and last albums of the ’80s, Seven Year Ache and King’s Record Shop), that 1990 disc has always seemed to bridge the two distinct halves of Cash’s career. On that side, hit-prospecting in Nashville and an ’80s snare boom that committed her to contemporary pop stylization; on this, soul-searching in Manhattan and the ’90s rhythmic understatement and soft-focus guitar that signify private expressionism.

And yet, to judge from The Very Best of Rosanne Cash, a new compilation, the line was never so clearly drawn. The first two tracks on The Very Best typify their periods—the gauzily heartfelt self- helpfulness of “The Wheel,” from 1993, and the precise Music Row neoclassicism of John Hiatt’s “This Is the Way We Make a Broken Heart,” from 1988. Jumbled together here, they sound of a piece, as though Cash simply moved from one set of generalities to another—both love-oriented, with the former tied to pop convention and the latter explicitly confessional. That’s why Black Cadillac is able to synthesize both of Cash’s not- so-disparate styles.

It helps that the very public nature of her recent misfortunes—her father, her mother, Vivian, and her stepmother, June, all died within a space of two years— allows Cash to assume specifics and write on the level of poetic myth. Historically, country songwriting soars when it refreshes commonplace language through wordplay and pun, but Cash has always been more likely to rip a page out of the Sting playbook. The idea is to respectfully approach a cliché as though it were a serious thought, thereby tricking the banality into profound meaning. But with Cash it often works, as with the reverie on her father’s grave, “God Is in the Roses” (“and the thorns”). And the title of “Dreams Are Not My Home” contextualizes lines like, “The future’s like a ringing bell/The road to good intentions wanders all the way through hell.” By recommitting herself to reality, it’s as though she’s seeking to escape her own literary blur.

Cash’s two producers, Bill Bottrell in L.A. and John Leventhal in New York, create the stiffly referential backdrop these lyrics require, self-consciously appropriating elements of a country heritage Cash no longer inhabits. The train rhythm and slide guitar of “Radio Operator,” a stylized Chris Isaak sort of rockabilly, offers musical echoes Cash must strain to hear; the wobbly Dixieland of “World Without Sound” is both reassuring and out of reach, just like the certainty of Christianity, or at least the luxury of “Demerol and cashmere,” which she longs for here. And the unsettling bass poking from beneath the album’s title track is both as eerie as the mariachi trumpet coda echoing “Ring of Fire” and as eloquent as Cash’s elegiac meditation on her father’s hearse.

This fuzziness of sound and image befits its subject—always somehow more monumental than the subjects he sang about, Johnny Cash has long been the country legend of choice for those who prefer Americana to Americans. But goddamn if those Cashes aren’t able to transcend specifics after all these years. Like her father, Rosanne Cash doesn’t express pain through her singing—she clamps down on it. An immense heartache sought to shake the baritone with which Johnny constrained it, to bring that granite voice crumbling down; what seems like austere prettiness in Rosanne’s voice is really the glow of that same inflamed passion seeking escape. After all, if your daddy came home only to burn it down, you might seek refuge in hard stoicism and soft imagery yourself.