Writing this review has been a bit of a struggle. I’m generally not one of those music critics that likes to shit on other people’s work, but truth be told, this compendium of Johnny Cash’s unpublished ‘poems’ just doesn’t do it for me. This is all the more disappointing given that all throughout his career as a rebel country pioneer, Cash displayed a great way with words, earning himself a reputation as one of America’s greatest songwriters.
Musicians seem to have a rocky relationship with poetry and prose though, and it is very few that can successfully pull it off. For every masterpiece like Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing or Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel, there are a hundred Tarantula’s (Dylan) or The List of the Lost’s (Morrissey). The thing that great songwriter/poets like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits have in common is the ability to distinguish between a song and poem and publish them accordingly.
The main issue with Forever Words is that ninety per cent of the pieces were clearly intended to be songs and even the most effective song lyric can’t quite hold up to the scrutiny that we place on a poem. That goes double for most of the pieces in this collection. They sorely need that “Boom-Chika” guitar sound and the wit and humanity of Cash’s gravelly voice to breathe life into them. Even the ones that are hugely readable, like the intriguing Job, will have you frustrated that Cash ran out of time to put them to music. Whilst reading, I felt like I was looking at a blueprint rather enjoying a finished product. Some of Cash’s earlier words made me feel slightly uneasy about the sheer volume of posthumous output from his estate, particularly the sardonic Don’t Make a Movie About Me.
It’s not all doom and gloom though as there are a few poems here that are more than just lyrics in search of a melody, like the contemplative I Heard It On the News or the tantalisingly short Forever. The collection does also offer a glimpse into the creative process of one of music’s most enduring characters and if you bear in mind that the man himself almost certainly never intended it be consumed as poetry, then there are some pleasures to be had. However, for the same price, you could buy an album of these pieces set to music by Elvis Costello, Alison Krauss and Chris Cornell. To me, that seems like a much more sensible prospect.
Forever Words is available now from Canongate Books.