Bio : Rosanne Cash
Dreams still beckon in a damaged world, and Rosanne Cash renders them with fierce grace on She Remembers Everything, a studio recording arriving November 2 from Blue Note Records.
Cash's album offers shimmering pop—with hints of twang and jazz—that could find a home in almost any year of postwar American music. But the luminescence and bright production are shot through with a darker vision. Trenchant vocals, minor chords, and bent notes destabilize the landscape. Familiar yet alien, Cash's take on being a woman in the world reveals just how much has gone awry.
In the wake of the latest tsunami of survivor stories, Cash has had to reckon with the fact that much of what she hoped would change across her lifetime really hasn't. She began to think about what it would mean to fully embrace women's narratives.
The title of the record is the lid to Pandora's box, both a come-on and a threat. There's the kindness and compassion of "She remembers everything about you," but also "Be careful, because she remembers everything."
Cash's most recent work includes a trio of albums exploring her roots. Black Cadillac followed the deaths of her mother, stepmother, and father more than a decade ago. In 2009, The List delivered a dozen covers from an index of 100 essential American songs her father had compiled for her. Her last album, 2014's The River & The Thread, won three GRAMMYs.
Here, she shifts her gaze from music history and heritage in order to reassert her own perspective. This album represents a deliberate return to personal songwriting.
Closing out the four decades Cash has spent as a recording artist, She Remembers Everything contains echoes of nearly all her previous stylings. Listeners who grew up singing along to "Seven Year Ache" on top-40 stations or playing Interiors on a CD player in their bedrooms will recognize the knowing ache of this record. Those who listened to recordings and live shows in subsequent years—which have included residencies at the San Francisco Jazz Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Library of Congress—will likewise find the literary voice that has framed her more recent music. Cash's time focused on roots music also lends a classic form to her songwriting that makes it universal and timeless.
She Remembers Everything fuses a life spent in music into a song cycle. On this album, Cash's career builds to the opposite of a flash in the pan: a kind of slow lightning harnessed into illumination.
A crew of more than a dozen musicians recorded She Remembers Everything in New York City and Portland, Oregon. Cash wrote the lyrics—and three songs in their entirety—while collaborators crafted the music. On the East Coast, Cash worked in tandem with John Leventhal, her husband and musical co-conspirator of more than two decades. On the West Coast, she recorded with Tucker Martine, who has produced artists from Mavis Staples and Neko Case to Bill Frisell and R.E.M.
The list of supporting cast members that Cash corralled reads like a who's who of songwriters. Longtime friends Elvis Costello and Kris Kristofferson form a trio with Cash for one song, and Colin Meloy of The Decemberists sings backing vocals on two tracks. Sam Phillips, whose anguished female narrators have long unsettled listeners, contributed both songwriting and backing vocals. Lera Lynn, a hypnotic talent who has emerged in recent years, also collaborated on songwriting, along with legend T Bone Burnett.
Opening the record is "The Only Thing Worth Fighting For," one of two tracks co-written with Lynn and Burnett for the HBO series True Detective. A haunting dissection of interpersonal combat ("weren't we like a battlefield? / locked inside a holy war"), the song emerged during a difficult time in which Cash wondered what was really essential to her world. For "My Least Favorite Life," the other collaboration with Lynn and Burnett, hissing cymbals launch a waltz-time nightmare as a departing lover transforms into something disturbing. By the time listeners get to "the night that I twist on the rack / is the time that I feel most at home," they have crossed over to a strange country that turns out to be their original life, revealed as a dystopia.
"The Undiscovered Country" lays out the gulf between men and women and how they move through the world. Answering the question of what a woman savior looks like, Cash addresses the price paid by famous and anonymous women who sacrificed themselves so that others might not have to live such narrow lives.
"8 Gods of Harlem" rose out of a real-life encounter in which Cash heard a woman climbing up from a train platform muttering something like ocho dioses ("eight gods"). Through she realized she must have been mistaken, the phrase stuck with her. She turned it into a snapshot of a mother losing a child, with Kristofferson and Costello writing and singing about the other family members. With references to gunfire and broken glass and the cost in lives from bullets ("we pray to the god / of collateral children"), "8 Gods" continues the theme of women facing domestic horrors that lurk in everyday landscapes.
A tribute to friendship sealed by music, "Rabbit Hole" offers backing vocals from Colin Meloy, along with rhythmic accordion standing in for the reassurance of breath itself. Written in the wake of a harrowing surgery, the song recounts Cash's struggle to return to the stage for the first time with Joe Henry and Billy Bragg, and finding herself resurrected by their performance.
Cash makes clear that love carries with it the certainty of loss. In the spirit of her recent albums, "Crossing to Jerusalem" takes the form of an old-time gospel tune, but instead of imagining heaven, lovers face their future death ("we'll be crossing to Jerusalem / with nothing but our love"). "Not Many Miles To Go" likewise plumbs the inevitability in any lasting marriage that one partner will bury the other. Celebrating the disasters survived, problems solved, and joys experienced ("the baby boy and world on a string"), the narrator name-checks a view of the Empire State Building, small-batch bourbon, and a Telecaster as the treasures she will guard in life or in memory, and hazards a guess at what her partner might remember if she dies first.
Fraught family history frames "Everyone But Me," an exquisite mosaic of generational grief and dislocation. Leventhal lays the foundation for the song with spare, ghostly piano, like some lost Stephen Foster dirge. Amid a raw soliloquy to dead parents, their shared sorrows and lies, and a race course littered with broken glass, their daughter finds the time since losing them "not nearly long enough / still it seems too long."
On the title track for the album, a "Moonlight Sonata"-style piano morphs into discordant guitar, pulling in co-writer Sam Phillips on backing vocals for powerful, plaintive effect. There's an implicit link between "Everyone But Me" and "She Remembers Everything": the "girl who sings"—what was her essential self before all the damage and paralysis got piled on?
An outgrowth of Cash's fascination with physics, "Particle and Wave" pulls back for the broadest perspective on the album, praising light itself, which "reveals what we hold dear," along with our ignorance and failures. "We owe everything / everything / to this rainbow of suffering."
The individual components on She Remembers Everything don't overlap as much as dovetail seamlessly. These songs are intricate Fabergé eggs hiding razorblades and fishhooks.
The album reckons with a world that embraces and betrays, sometimes in the same moment. Descending chords lead to dizzying songs that unfold like a hallucination of falling downstairs, in which "the station pulls away from the train / the blue pulls away from the sky." The feminine gothic theme registers on the album as a cloaked portrait of women's anger and longing, love and madness, and a host of confrontations with death.
Cash's voice seems to only become more resonant and expressive with time. She has recovered from polyps on one side of her vocal cords, as well as devastating brain surgery. Her traumas speak to the mortality that finds reflection in her songs, addressing head-on the wonder and fragility of remaining alive for another record, another year. It is hard to picture her writing these new songs a decade ago. Perhaps with time shorter, there is more to say.
Rosanne Cash the public persona—the outspoken activist, the woman with eleven #1 hits, the daughter of a country music legend—sometimes obscures the actual music of Rosanne Cash the artist. But this record is the sum of all her parts: the stories she shares, as well as those she withholds.
—by Andrea Pitzer