Recording of April 2003: Rules of Travel

ROSANNE CASH: Rules of Travel
Capitol CDP 8 37757 (CD). 2003. John Leventhal, prod., eng. AAD. TT: 39:07
Performance *****
Sonics ****

When we last heard from Rosanne Cash, she was busy sifting through the rubble of her marriage to Rodney Crowell. Her final two albums for Columbia, Interiors (1990) and The Wheel (1993), often called "chick records" by those who lack the sense or the ears to know better, were the yin and the yang of that severe breakup. While the dark, self-produced Interiors was obviously a cathartic exercise for Cash—few records have its magnitude of audible pain—The Wheel had brighter tempos, less anger, and much better production, some of it courtesy of New Yorker John Leventhal, who soon after became Cash's husband.

In 1996, Cash, who'd by then settled in New York, released an odd, rough, half-finished collection accurately described by its title: 10 Song Demo. Discounted for being just that, the album was largely ignored by press and public. Two years of songwriting followed, but when it came time to begin recording in 1998, Cash was hit with the one-two punch of discovering that, at 42, she was pregnant, and then losing her singing and, finally, her speaking voices. This continued for two and a half years, thanks to a polyp on her vocal cords that did not subside when her son, Jake, was born. Finally, in 2000, without surgery, the polyp began to shrink and Cash's voice returned. It's this dramatic tale that makes her new album what the record business loves to call a "a long-awaited return to form."

But even that may not be enough to adequately describe the many charms of Rules of Travel. Lost in the rush to dissect the apparent autobiography of their lyrics was the fact that Interiors and The Wheel were the most artistically ambitious records of Cash's career. That trend continues here. If the last two albums (not including 10 Song Demo) chronicled Cash's passing through a personal ordeal, then Rules of Travel feels as if Cash's hard-earned self-knowledge has stuck.

Cash's blend of urban folk and pop—there is absolutely nothing "country" about this album—has never been sharper. The title tune, co-written with Leventhal and the album's most irresistible melody, is also Rules of Travel's emotional manifesto: "Now that you've made your mistake / Now that you know how the heart bends and breaks / just throw away the book and take a second look / behind the door / the guided tour / what we came here for." The change from both Columbia albums but Interiors in particular is that Cash now speaks knowledgeably but appealingly about the perils and responsibilities of affairs of the heart. That same quality can be found in the album's opener, "Beautiful Pain" (by former Odds member Craig Northey), whose opening quatrain, sung against just guitar, intones, "Do you want to be honest / do you want to win / You could have it all / if you could gracefully give in."

The real test of whether this is going to be another heavy, perhaps too personal exploration of relationships comes in "I'll Change for You" (with guest spoken-word accompaniment by Steve Earle), which is moody but not overly so. In "Closer than I Appear," the tempos and handclaps (!) are downright buoyant. Happily, Cash has also included her original "Western Wall," which first appeared on 10 Song Demo but was given its most memorable rendition by Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt on their 1999 album of the same name.

The respect Cash commands in the larger music world is obvious from the album's short but impressive guest list. Jakob Dylan and Joe Henry co-wrote a song, "Hope Against Hope." Duet partners include Earle, Sheryl Crow (the album's concession to commercialism), and Cash's ailing father, the great Johnny Cash, whose voice, now more expressive than ever, makes up half of the stunning duet on the Cash/Leventhal original, "September When It Comes." Anyone not familiar with the elder Cash's most recent album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, should find a copy quick. Despite a long and distinguished career that's produced a handful of signature tunes and records, Cash has created an exquisitely somber and reflective album, perhaps his last, that is a stone masterpiece of American music. Mortality has never sounded this...mortal.

Part of the credit for Rules of Travel has to go to John Leventhal, whose previous production credits include work with Kelly Willis, Jim Lauderdale, and, most famously, Shawn Colvin, with whom he had a personal relationship and won several Grammy Awards. His tasteful arrangements and spare production style here sound similar to some of his earlier projects. Tempos are spot-on throughout, and details, such as the keyboard that opens "Rules of Travel," add much to what is basically a very lean-sounding record. At the center, Cash's vocals are closely miked but not overly so.

Overall, a resonant new affirmation from an accomplished source.—Robert Baird