Cash's best remakes are shiver-inducing in their woeful intensity, such as the shockingly grim "I See a Darkness" and the death-accepting statement of defiance, "The Mercy Seat." Other standouts, such as "Nobody" and "That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day)," deal with loneliness rather than more macabre topics, but the quivering sadness in Cash's voice communicates that living alone sometimes is a more fearful prospect than dying. His takes on Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" and U2's "One" are destined to dominate review space and advertising copy, but they aren't the strongest tracks. They do, however, contain the finest guitar work on the album. Cash masterfully nudges the melody in "One," leading it through near-silent passages to new depths of despair, but his straightforward vocals fit uneasily with the backdrop, let alone the melodramatic lyrical content. Cash seems much more at home telling the tragic tale of "Mary of the Wild Moor," his commanding voice adding emotional weight to the plight of a grief-stricken family. And when swapping lines with Merle Haggard on the relatively melodic original "I'm Leavin' Now," Cash shines, his voice sounding far from age-weathered.
The Man in Black's recordings remain vital. And although he's definitely following a framework, the most crucial similarity between this album and the others is its instant-classic-caliber quality.