Rosanne Cash – Shadow of a doubt
“But as for wanting to write like him, that felt alien to me. I could never have written a song like ‘Big River’ or ‘Hey Porter’. I don’t have that southern imprint. It’s not where I come from, in that deep, deep way that he came from there.”
If “write what you know” remains her mandate, it’s plain from Black Cadillac that recent years have found Cash dealing with grief in all its many dimensions. Too often, the process of mourning is simplified or even prettified for public consumption, as if the passage of time provides a straight path from anger to acceptance while healing all hurt. Much of the power of Cash’s album derives from the range of emotions that are often raw and occasionally conflicting.
The last song she wrote for the album, “Like Fugitives”, is easily the angriest, sparked by the death of Rosanne’s mother but striking out at other targets (“It’s a strange new world we live in/Where the church leads you to hell/And the lawyers get the money/For the lives they divide and sell”). “I guess I kind of got fed up with fundamentalism, but the anger is part and parcel of grief, isn’t it?” she says. “I was flailing about to find a place to hang my anger, and that’s one place it went to.”
Musical polarities reinforce thematic concerns. Though Rosanne worked with John Leventhal — her husband, producer-guitarist and frequent songwriting collaborator — on half the album, she went from New York (where she has lived since the early ’90s) to Los Angeles to record the other half with Bill Bottrell, whose credits include Sheryl Crow and Shelby Lynne. Bottrell applied a more expansive sonic palette to Rosanne’s production.
“It was Julian Raymond’s idea, my A&R director,” she explains. “I was supposed to start the record with John, but he was working with Michelle Branch, and the project was going over and going over. Julian was getting impatient and he said, ‘Why don’t you go in with Bill, try three songs, and if it doesn’t work, you haven’t lost anything.’ Bill and I hit it off immediately and I loved the musicians he brought to work with me. I can’t tell you how inspirational it was to work with him.
“But I still wanted to work with John as well. We had co-written ‘House On The Lake’ and ‘Radio Operator’ and ‘Good Intent’, and he was very invested in producing those songs. I wanted what each of them could bring to the record. John has an incredible feel for Appalachianflavored and real American roots music. And Bill has a great feel for rock ‘n’ roll and a pop sensibility that I’m really drawn to in much of my writing.”
The results bring Rosanne’s musical progression full circle, as the album’s sequencing alternates tracks from the two producers. She has never written a more tender ballad than “I Was Watching You”, nor a tougher rocker than “Burn Down This Town”. The rockabilly-tinged “Radio Operator” shares a spirit with much of the music she recorded in the 1980s with former husband Rodney Crowell; “Dreams Are Not My Home” evokes that era as well.
“It references stuff that I would do in the past without seeming dated,” says Cash. “This was something John and I talked about at length, that not only was this a record that lyrically contained a lot of personal history, but that musically it should as well — that it should reference back to Seven Year Ache, to King’s Record Shop, to Interiors (all classic albums recently reissued with bonus cuts and new liner notes by Sony/Legacy). ‘I Was Watching You’ and ‘The World Unseen’ are like grown-up versions of ‘The Real Me’ from King’s Record Shop. And ‘The Good Intent’, if I had been able to do that on Interiors, I would have. I wasn’t mature enough as a writer or a musician, but that’s where I was headed.”
In the wake of 1990’s Interiors, Cash expressed uneasiness that the album had been interpreted so autobiographically, so literally, that it was commonly considered her “divorce album” from Crowell. If anything, Black Cadillac is even more personal. Is Cash concerned about similar misinterpretation?
“The truth is that Interiors was autobiographical, and that I didn’t even realize the extent of it until well after the fact,” she says. “And there’s no way I could deny that this new record is autobiographical. It’s obviously from my life. At the same time, it’s not a diary. And that’s where my resentment rises, when people assume that I just kind of vomited these feelings onto a page and sent them out for public consumption.
“It’s a very conscious attempt to create a thematic arc,” she continues. “Songwriting is such a specific discipline. There’s something about a song, when melody and the lyrics are perfectly melded together, and the poetry works, and the internal rules have been obeyed, whatever internal rules have arisen for that particular song. There’s just this beautiful satisfaction.”
As the album’s penultimate number and biggest production, “World Without Sound” is both the most musically playful and lyrically bitter number here. “I wish I was a Christian and knew what to believe,” sings Cash, supported by a jaunty horn section that suggests a New Orleans funeral. “I could learn a lot of rules to put my mind at ease.”
Are the doubts expressed in a song such as this the flip side of the coin of faith in the disc’s fifth track, “God Is In The Roses”?
“Oh, absolutely,” she quickly responds. “I think that loss is not just one thing. It’s anger and it’s doubt, it’s faith and it’s doubt again, and it’s faith again. I felt tremendous doubts after my dad’s death. I was really tormented by it and went into as dark a place as I possibly could. What if they’re just in the ground and that’s it, there’s nothing more? And I woke up with this sentence in my head, ‘Give wings to your doubt.’
“It was such a beautiful, liberating idea to me, to go ahead and explore doubt as deeply and richly as you can. And when I did, what happened of course, is that it led me right back to faith.”
As a fellow orphan, ND senior editor Don McLeese can’t listen to “I Was Watching You” from Black Cadillac without feeling chills.