Rosanne Cash Gets Personal, Reflective, and Acutely Self-Aware on ‘She Remembers Everything’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

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Rosanne Cash has delivered some of the most memorable albums in this millennium.  Her previous, 2014’s The River and the Thread earned three Grammy Awards.  This time out though she steps away from her roots, history and familial linkage to write from a deeply personal perspective on her life, the world we’re in, and the future, with an eye toward mortality. She Remembers Everything as a title implies some discomfort.  You can read more than one angle into it.

Cash is looking at the world with a critical eye. If you caught her speech at this year’s Americana Music Awards Show where she received  the “Spirit of Americana” Free Speech Award, you’ll readily hear her stance in the album. She made three points of which we quote her first lines – “1. that artists and musicians are not damaged outcasts of society, but  indispensable members. We are in fact the premier service industry for the heart and soul……2. Women are not small, inferior versions of  men. We are not objects or property. We have unique gifts to offer and if you discount us, the whole world tilts on an unnatural axis……3. I believe with all my heart that a single child’s life is greater, more precious, and more deserving of the protection of this nation and of the adults in this room than the right to own a personal arsenal of military-style weapons. The killing of children in schools should not be collateral damage for the 2nd amendment.”

Yet Cash, as few can, delivers her raw honesty gracefully and elegantly. Cash wrote all the lyrics, and three songs entirely on her own, while other collaborators fashioned the music. Principal collaborator of course, was husband and multi-instrumentalist John Leventhal, who has steered her projects for the better part of two decades.  But, besides recording in her home city of New York, half of the tracks were recorded and produced by Tucker Martine (Mavis Staples, Neko Case, Bill Frisell) in Portland, OR with West Coast musicians, giving these songs an edgier groove than the familiar Leventhal style.

Cash had contributions from some high profile co-writers as well. Elvis Costello and Kris Kristofferson co-author and sing on “8 Gods of Harlem,” Sam Phillips co-writes and sings on the title track, while Lera Lynn and T-Bone Burnett co-write “My Least Favorite Life” and the opening “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For.” Colin Meloy of the Decemberists sings on two tracks.

Let’s briefly touch on the songs. “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For,” with Lynn and Burnett, is one of two songs for the HBO Series True Detective. It becomes a harbinger of songs to come, as lines about interpersonal combat (“weren’t we like a battlefield?/locked inside a holy war”) set the tone. The three writers also have the closing track “My Least Favorite Life” where a nightmare leads to an imagined life that’s unsettled – (“the station pulls away from the train/the blue pulls away from the sky/the whispers of two broken wings/maybe they’re yours/maybe they’re mine.”)

”The Undiscovered Country” is her term for the gulf between men and women. Here she pays tribute to the women who have made amazing sacrifices. “8 Gods of Harlem” is taken from a phrase Cash heard from a woman climbing up from a subway platform. She turned it into a story about a woman losing her child with Costello and Kristofferson writing and singing about family members while the gods of broken glass and gunfire are summed up best in this line  (‘we pray to the god/of collateral children).” “Rabbit Hole,” featuring Meloy, is Cash’s metaphor for returning to the stage after surgery. “Crossing to Jerusalem,” and “Not Many Miles to Go” are directly aimed at mortality.

Mortality also brings reflection about deceased parents, the subject of the sparely rendered “Everyone But Me” which becomes more self-directed in the title track that follows. These observations are summed up in “Particle and Wave” where in the simplest terms light becomes meaningless without the dark – (“We owe everything/everything/to this rainbow of suffering”).

More than anything, Cash is contemplating the meaning of survival is these songs. Rather than trumpet them in a celebratory way, she treats survival existentially. In other words, we can go through struggles, emerge okay, while asking whether we’ll  find enough value and joy in what remains. She has recovered from polyps on one side of her vocal chords and devastating brain surgery. She’s emerged from these traumas very well, so other than the small allusion to stage fright in “Rabbit Hole,” it’s not about her recovery. It’s about her outlook. She’s impacted by the pain of parents who have had their innocent children shot down, her past encounters with the “suits” in the cruel music biz, and the reversals of freedom on several levels in our current world. Mortality is a bit easy to center on. Her concerns run much deeper.

She’s put some of her activism into the music, not in a preachy way, but in a restrained, provocative way that poses an endless amount of rhetorical questions.  That’s why this record is not as immediately accessible as even her most recent ones. Cash, in her intellectual way, is challenging the listener to uncover some messages while not laying it out neatly on the table but instead in  the hidden corners and recesses that one needs to carefully explore.

 

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