Many forces conspire to make Johnny Cash's Solitary Man good instead of great: The tame, toothless arrangements are neither as viscerally spare as those on 1994's brilliant American Recordings nor as fleshed out as those on 1996's Heartbreakers-backed Unchained. After years battling Parkinson's-related illness, Cash's voice sounds strained and limited. And then there's the song selection, which doesn't allow for radical reinvention the way Solitary Man's recent predecessors have. Will Oldham's "I See A Darkness" is a smart selection—Oldham even sings on the track—but Cash does nothing revelatory or transcendent with "I Won't Back Down" or U2's "One." It's no surprise that the best tracks tend to be originals, including a lovely duet with Merle Haggard ("I'm Leavin' Now"), a tribute to the eternal nature of music ("Before My Time"), and "Country Trash," an overtly crowd-pleasing little anthem that's sure to be covered by many others in years to come. As gently appealing as that song is, however, its loose, easy-going nature is indicative of Solitary Man's key fault: Like Neil Young's Silver And Gold, it feels like a thematically empty, knockabout place-holder. American Recordings, one of Cash's towering classics, was all devotion and doubt, a brilliant, raw-boned meditation on redemption and death. A loose, flat set of odds and ends, Solitary Man is merely a minor but endearing record from a man who seems to know he's given more than enough.
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