A Darker But Simpler Return
Rosanne Cash, the eldest daughter of the Man in Black, released The River & The Thread this month, making it more or less the first serious country release of 2014. The album is a follow-up to her ambitious 2009 concept album The List, in which Cash played twelve songs from a list of one hundred her father gave her to further her knowledge of country music. This album, in a sense, also relates back to Cash’s father, inspired partially by a trip she made to Arkansas to visit Johnny Cash’s boyhood home, described by Roseanne as “just about to the ground.” The ruin of the home and the residents of the nearby community inspired Cash throughout her songwriting career, eventually spawning this release.
While The List as a concept was an intimate look into Rosanne Cash’s personal history, The River & The Road is more of an introspective and reserved glimpse of the artist’s American heritage; each song seems to constitute a story of its own, crafted with inherently classic Americana themes that echo her lineage and represent Cash’s desire to stay connected to her roots. Tunes like “Etta James” and “Tell Heaven” lyrically incorporate strong songwriting with interesting imagery to craft haunting portraits of days past. As a lyricist, Cash succeeds on River in creating a deeper, darker mood that echoes outlaw country without the added camp.
Despite this, the instrumentation of the album, as well as the style of Cash’s vocal performance, seem slightly banal and derivative; in comparison to her recent releases, especially The List, which featured the likes of Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, and Rufus Wainwright, Cash is not nearly as inventive or prone to risk-taking and experimentation. River had such potential squandered by Cash’s decision to stick to basics, understandable as the country genre lends itself well to her subject matter, but with the freshness of her recent releases, the return to genre staples seems like an awkward move.
Thematically, however, the album remains an interesting concept and is filled with emotional breadth, warranting a listen by all. It’s just disappointing that it could have been so much more.