”Even the lightest-hearted of Rosanne Cash’s superb 35-year repertoire often carries with it the weight of history, the struggle for self-discovery and a sense of place. It’s hardly surprising given her station, born into the first family of American music royalty. On The River & The Thread, Cash’s first album of original material in seven years, and first since brain surgery in 2007, those vibes run deeper than ever, plunging into complicated emotions, impossible situations, piquant insights, fate and history, and the meaning of it all in the land of Dixie.
Playing like a travelogue through time, space and place, The River & The Thread opens – with a yawning, bluesy guitar chord – in the northwestern Alabama burg of Florence. This is “A Feather’s Not A Bird”, and it finds Cash flitting between emotional and geographical landscapes to a sinewy, swampy mix of hot-wired guitars, silky harmonies and a revelatory, ominously impassioned vocal. The setting could be right now, or 100 years either direction. “There’s never any highway when you’re looking for the past,” she declares, part of a kind of cumulative taking stock.
Cash and guitarist/producer/husband John Leventhal assembled an exemplary lineup of musicians for The River & The Thread: singers Allison Moorer, Amy Helm and John Paul White (The Civil Wars), Allmans guitarist supreme Derek Trucks and, as she puts it, the Voice Of God Choir – Rodney Crowell, John Prine, Tony Joe White, Kris Kristofferson – who pitch in on one cut. That said, it’s Cash, at the top of her game as a singer, who carries the day. Her voice is a persistent wonder, a flexibly crystalline instrument, which with a tiny shift in intonation, a subtle turn of phrase, alters the texture or perspective, imbuing the songs with trenchant, kaleidoscopic shades of meaning.
One might think of The River & The Thread as the glorious summation in her post-dad-death trilogy, following 2006’s grief-stricken Black Cadillac and 2008’s tradition-grounded, Johnny Cash-inspired album of covers, The List. It feels as if this is now the point where the internal turmoil subsides, the clouds part, new connections await. Then again, it just might just as easily signal a rather momentous rebirth.
Not that there’s not always more grief around the corner. Sung in a kind of stunned mix of determination, vulnerability, and fatalism, “Etta’s Tune” is at the heart of The River & The Thread, indeed the spark, the first piece written for the album. A tribute in part to fallen Tennessee Two bassist and close friend Marshall Grant (a prime architect of her dad’s boom-chicka-boom sound), who passed away in 2011 at 83, and Etta, his wife of 65 faithful years, this song is celebration and mourning. It’s deeply personal yet connected to everything, a glimpse into the fabric of centralising, salt-of-the-earth, real-life characters. Every stanza is teardrop territory.
The altogether snappier “Modern Blue” kicks in next, changing up the mood, the album’s shiniest, coolest-rocking coin. Hinging on Leventhal’s catchy guitar curlicues echoing down through the verses, it’s, ostensibly, a world travelers’ tale. The protagonist traipses through a litany of locales, all of them not Memphis, before the epiphany comes: “I went to Barcelona and my mind got changed,” Cash leans into on the song’s pivotal verse, “So I’m heading back to Memphis on the midnight train.”
The ghostly blues stomp of “World Of Strange Design”, meanwhile, Trucks percolating the rhythms on slide guitar, is Cash pushing her poetic edge, heading off into deepest mystery, exploring the identity of place, the forces of fate (“If Jesus came from Mississippi…” she ponders), on perhaps the album’s most powerfully affecting track.
Along the way, Cash touches upon the quest for spiritualism in a world of loneliness (“Tell Heaven”) and the wits-end desperation of a Dust Bowl-era Arkansas farmer (“The Sunken Lands”). “Night School” feels more contemporary lyrically, but with its sparkling, orchestral 1860s parlor-ballad arrangement, it joins most of its peers in defying the conventional parameters of time; musically, it’s The River & The Thread’s most daring, surprising piece.
Foreboding heartbreak permeates the characters’ stark realities in the aching Civil War-era portrait “When The Master Calls The Roll” – the principals scrolling by as in a novel. Within the general structure of a classic Celtic ballad, gorgeous mandolin and fiddle accents, and the her so-called Voice Of God Choir, Cash plunges into myth and reality, magnificence and tragedy, her voice delivering each chapter in the story with an aching beauty.
“50,000 Watts”, though, a shuffling blues, grasps new hope, alas a new identity, and optimism in the post-war South – in short, a new start: “We’ll be who we are, not who we were,” she sings in scrumptious, anticipatory harmony with Wandering Sons singer Cory Chisel. The song doesn’t name names, but it might as well be referencing Johnny Cash’s clarion calls “Hey Porter” or “Big River” blasting out of Memphis’ WSM in 1958.
The spidery “The Long Way Home” is the album’s sleeper, at first slipping by unsuspectingly. But here, amid a Leventhal string arrangement seemingly awash in kudzu, David Mansfield’s nimble violin and viola touches, and Cash channeling her purest gothic voice, emerges one of the album’s central truths – the resolute inescapability of place: “You thought you’d left it all behind,” she avers.
By the time The River & The Thread completes its mesmerising trek, tracing the history and its myriad characters, the feel and the psyche of the deepest South in its closer, “Money Road”, the troupe has arrived in tiny Money, Mississippi, upon a rural roadway adjacent to Robert Johnson’s mythical crossroads. Spooky as a pitch-black midnight walk across Bobbie Gentry’s (also adjacent) Tallahatchie Bridge, Cash’s voice cutting like a scythe through keyboards that rise and fall like ghosts, all the themes, a million micro-bits of the story, converge, before Leventhal suddenly, shockingly, takes the listener out with a prickly electric sitar, time heading in both directions.
Rating: 10 / 10”