In the first words of the last recording before his death, Johnny Cash speaks slowly, with his native authority, over the incipient trickle of Jonathan Elias’ piano.
The American River
Lives inside our soul.
It spills onto the soil we touch,
And it spreads its wisdom
To those who then reach
The struggle to remain pure,
Is clouded by fear and deceit.
As the music builds behind Cash, so to does the River, growing with ever-increasing complexity. Continuance (Windows Media Player: high, low), spoken-word track, is performed first by Johnny Cash, describing the River as life, and then by his daughter, who chronicles the marniners-turned-musicians history of the American family Cash.
The metaphor is quite simple and certainly unoriginal – the River as our personal journey through life, ever struggling against a path already determined and the confusion of ‘rocky ideas’ – but it is still powerful, and feels more so because of the beautiful, refreshing music that Elias has created.
Elias treats the River differently, more respectfully than most. While a popular musician might use the River as a metaphor as a means to express a sentiment, Elias sees the River as an end in itself that just happens to mirror the myriad and humble existence of humans.
The ultimate beneficiary of this rare treatment of riverine America is the listener. In about an hour, one is treated to dynamics, depths and complexities rarely found on music that makes the radio. Elias draws from actual rivers, from the frenetic Colorado to the softer, slower Waiting in the Forest.
It truly is a gorgeous record from start to finish. The spoken word performances by Kris Kristofferson and Emmylou Harris are both good and interesting, although I found myself skipping through them after 5-6 listens. Elias’ music has rare power though, and I doubt that power will stray too far from my stereo any time soon. My guess is that if you purchase this album, it will have a similar effect on you.
Coincedently, Kristofferson and Cash collaberated at least once before, working with Willie and Waylon to write a tremendous song called The Highwaymen, a sonic history of four mythical figures of the Great American West. Cash sings the third verse, quite fittingly about a dam builder the Colorado River:
I was a dam builder across the river deep and wide
where steel and water did collide
A place called Boulder on the wide Colorado
I slipped and fell into the wet concrete below
They buried me in that great tomb that knows no sound
But I am still around
I think Elias would agree.
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