JOHNNY CASH – “I See A Darkness”

You might hardly notice the most important difference between Will Oldham’s reading of his “I See A Darkness” and Johnny Cash’s new version. The song’s first line, “Well, you’re my friend” is followed in the Oldham recording by a ghostly backing parenthesis – “(That’s what you told me anyway)”. Cash allows no such ambiguity. So the song in its writer’s hands becomes a postcard from purgatory, a faltering cry for comfort and survival in a world where nothing can be taken on trust. And in Cash’s hands it’s something simpler, starker, and somehow more awful still: a straight choice between friendship and horror.

Cash sings like his voice could carve commandments on stone: a thrilling, humbling sound which does point up the weaknesses in Oldham’s typically tricksy, mock-antiquarian lyrics. “And its dreadful and position”? Cash simply sings it all anyway, saving his thunder for the chorus, letting you see the darkness too. Oldham as a songwriter has always played games with religion, and it’s tempting to open the metaphor bag and call Cash’s staggering performance here ‘Biblical’. But Cash is singing in and about a world abandoned by God, and what he’s singing is that in such a place every man creates his own Judgement Day. The song ends with the choice still unmade.

Where The Handsome Family come from, though, even such choices seem ridiculous. “The world is made up of milk and scissors”, they sing on “The Dutchboy”, and attempting to steer between the two, or influence them, is a fool’s pastime, as the Dutchboy comes to realise. The Handsome Family’s great strength is Rennie Sparks and her tender, nihilistic lyrics. Brett Sparks’ voice can’t always match up, though on “The Dutchboy” his gloomy, grave-born drone does its job well. And the guitars which crack the song in two, primitive and vengeful, drown him half out anyhow. Just as with Oldham, there’s a sense sometimes with the Handsome Family that they enjoy country and western as metaphysics as much as music, and their cleverness sometimes rubs their songs up the wrong way. But they’re also willing to be straightforward in a way he almost never is, and if Johnny Cash has another covers album in him he could do far worse than to start by looking here.