Friday, May 27, 2011

Album Review: The Essential Rosanne Cash

Rosanne Cash was one of the most popular female country artists of the eighties, but with a decent number of hits already under her belt, she relinquished her slot on country radio in exchange for full creative freedom. The Essential Rosanne Cash – released thirty years after her career hit “Seven Year Ache” reached number one – is an in-depth career-spanning compilation featuring 36 songs hand-selected by Rosanne herself.

This album is a double-disc set in which each disc covers a different era in Rosanne’s career. Disc 1 begins with two tracks (“Can I Still Believe In You” and “Baby, Better Start Turnin’ ‘Em Down”) from Rosanne’s little-known self-titled debut album, released on German label Ariola. From there, this disc goes into all of Rosanne’s best-known radio hits, as well as some lesser-known inclusions, all arranged in loose chronological order. Essential hits such as “Seven Year Ache,” “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train,” “Blue Moon with Heartache,” and her Grammy-winner “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” are all present and accounted for. After we hear a fair amount of the synth-laden sound of the eighties, the disc segues into the mainstream country sound of her 1987 album King’s Record Shop. That classic set yielded four number-one singles – a feat unprecedented by any female artist at the time – all of which are included in this compilation (“The Way We Make a Broken Heart,” “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” “If You Ever Change Your Mind,” “Runaway Train”). The first disc closes with Rosanne’s final number-one hit, her country-tinged cover of the Beatles’ “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” signaling the end of Rosanne’s hit-making era.

But it would be a mistake to focus only on Rosanne’s hit songs, and to overlook the remarkable body of work she produced in the years after she turned away from hit making. As Disc 2 opens, it deviates from chronological order by beginning with “The Real Me,” a non-single track from King’s Record Shop. This deviation is appropriate, as “The Real Me” ideally sets the tone for the songs to follow. Indeed, Disc 2 represents the era in which Rosanne had stopped attempting to squeeze herself into the mainstream country mold, and began recording the most personal music of her career. This was when we began to see the real Rosanne Cash in exquisite compositions such as “The Wheel” (the centerpiece of her 1993 rock album of the same title), “Sleeping In Paris,” “Rules of Travel,” and many others.

An indispensable inclusion is “September When It Comes,” – Rosanne’s ethereal duet with her legendary father Johnny Cash, recorded in 2003 for her album Rules of Travel. The song, written by Rosanne with her husband John Leventhal, explored the theme of mortality in a way that was eerily prophetic of Johnny Cash’s own impending death (which took place in September of that very year). Using the month of September to symbolize the period near the end of one’s life, the lyrics beautifully conveyed emotions of both pain and hope. Such a masterpiece of a song is a definite career highlight, whether it becomes a hit or not. After losing her father, mother, stepmother, and stepsister in a short two-year time span, Rosanne poured her grief into her 2006 set Black Cadillac, expressing herself through songs such as the title track, “House On the Lake,” “The World Unseen,” and “The Good Intent,” all of which are included in The Essential Rosanne Cash. Disc 2 closes with two tracks from Rosanne’s 2009 covers album The List – “500 Miles," “Sea of Heartbreak" (her duet with Bruce Springsteen), and "Sweet Memories."

The hit songs are only the tip of the iceberg – This is true of just about any artist, but perhaps all the more so with Rosanne Cash. There is often much more to learn about an artist than what can be discerned from a simple, concise “Greatest Hits” package. By visiting virtually every chapter of Rosanne’s career, The Essential Rosanne Cash manages to live up to its title in full – essential in the sense of music quality, as well as effectiveness in summing up an artist’s career. Of course, the only way to see the full depth of Rosanne’s artistry would be to collect her entire discography, but The Essential Rosanne Cash offers the finest portrait that could ever be seen from one compilation album. The result is a career retrospective as beautiful and well-rounded as any artist could hope for.
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)