30DSC: Best Cover

Day 2 of the 30 day song challenge. Today, the best cover version ever performed.

Johnny Cash – Hurt

Originally performed and written by Nine Inch Nails, on the face of it Hurt seems an unlikely choice for inclusion on what Cash must have known would likely be his last album. Pitched to him by his producer, Cash agreed to it and what followed will without a doubt go down in musical history as the triumphant final chord in the symphony of Johnny Cash’s troubled and brilliant life.

Accompanied at first simply by a strumming acoustic guitar, soon a piano joins. In every chorus that piano builds to a crescendo, getting louder and more thunderous. It’s magnificent and intimidating. Each time that gently tinkling accompaniment begins it sounds beautiful. But it swells and it doesn’t stop swelling, and it becomes loud and then louder, still swelling, until you just want to be released from it. You can hardly breathe under its pressure. It’s too much, too strong, too big for the song, too overwhelming for Cash’s faltering vocals. And it’s perfect. Imperfect in musical terms, in practical ones it cannot be bettered.

Yes it overpowers Cash’s performance, but that’s the point. The loss of the artist’s self is the entire point of this song. The song’s author Trent Reznor wrote it as a younger man about the hopelessness and despair he felt and in the Nine Inch Nails version this feeling comes through with perfect clarity, all rage and bitter tears. It’s good but it’s adolescent, it’s formative grief.

Life is long and it is hard. Nobody knew this better than Johnny Cash and in his hands Hurt is subtly transfigured. No less poignant, no less heart-wrenching than the original, Cash makes it adult. He turns it from a song which protests against life’s agonies to one which simply acknowledges them. His cover is one which sits you down and tells you, without agenda or bitterness, that life is a struggle and filled with disappointments.

It is the contrast between the almost concilliatory tone of the song and the abject despair of its vocals which makes this not simply the best cover of all time, but one of the best pieces of musical work of all time. It’s stripped down and it’s desolate; it’s the sun-down at the close of a day you hoped would never end; it’s the final surrender at the end of a long war. It’s the epitaph of a musical legend. It is broken, untidy; it makes your soul ache.

But it is triumphant. The guitar and that damned piano swell at the end and you know that everything’s going to be all right in the end.

It’s a masterpiece of emotion. It’s a character piece for that old rebel. It’s up and it’s down, it’s right and it’s wrong. It’s the best song Cash never wrote.


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March 2011
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