Ever since I heard Rosanne Cash in concert for the first time last month in the Berkshires, I’ve been returning to my favorite of her albums, 1993’s The Wheel. It’s obvious to me why I like this album the most out of all the superb records from Cash’s thirty-year catalog: The Wheel is the closest she’s ever come to recording a pure pop album. With a career that began deeply steeped in country music — partly through association with her legendary father, the late Johnny Cash — Rosanne first made her name in that particular genre, though the majority of her songs lean more in the direction of folk. One listen through the selections included on The Essential Rosanne Cash, her excellent two-disc career retrospective released back in May, makes that distinction fairly clear.
The Wheel arrived at an important turning point not just in Rosanne Cash’s career, but in her personal and romantic life as well. As she chronicles in her recently published memoir Composed, she met her future husband and musical collaborator John Leventhal just as she’d begun recording the album, and the two ended up co-producing its eleven songs together. The sonic result is appropriately buoyant, filled with the bliss and adrenaline of newly falling in love, both with a person and with a place. Cash had relocated with her daughters from Nashville to Manhattan just prior to writing the first songs on The Wheel, having divorced her husband of a decade, country musician Rodney Crowell. The album is imbued with the vibrant atmosphere of New York, while the City of Light makes a shimmering appearance on the song “Sleeping in Paris” as well (“I thought I knew which way the wind blows / But now it’s blowing me back to you / And the wind speaks French too”).
Cash’s previous release — 1990’s moody, self-produced, and Grammy-nominated Interiors — had closely explored her divorce, and it also marked her commercial crossover from country singer to mainstream artist. The Wheel was clearly intended, from an industry standpoint, to cement that status. It’s a transition that a number of other female folk/country songwriters and performers had successfully made at right around that time: Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega. Chapman’s runaway 1988 hit “Fast Car” is especially useful to consider in this context; in addition to the song’s brilliant, enduring appeal both lyrically and musically, “Fast Car” found an audience largely because of how unusual a fit it was for standard Top 40 pop fare. The very unexpectedness of such a song at the top of the pop charts helped to make it, like Vega’s “Luka” not too long before, an authentic novelty record.
Although the three singles from Cash’s The Wheel — “Seventh Avenue,” “You Won’t Let Me In,” and the album’s title track — didn’t experience similar chart runs, they were all equally worthy of doing so. In fact, The Wheel is one of those rare albums that doesn’t include a single mediocre song. Cash infuses it with a thematic and sonic integrity from beginning to end, endowing the album with the unassuming sweep of an internalized musical, one that’s meant to play on a solitary Broadway in the mind of each individual listener. In Composed, she describes the overarching concept of the album as elemental, featuring “recurring themes . . . of fire and water, wind and moon.” Along with its distinctive pop veneer, this thematic continuity is largely why the album appealed to me so much from my very first listen.
The elemental, earthly through-line of The Wheel, ironically, carries an almost cosmic scope. Love, heartbreak, and rejuvenation are all set against the vast machinery of the universe itself. The central image of the title song is equal parts zodiac, prayer wheel, and celestial pocket-watch. This is best expressed by how Cash chooses to open the album with a series of questions that feel down-to-earth and mythical at once, counterpointing Sleeping Beauty with Persephone:
“How long was I asleep?
When did we plan to meet?
Have you been waiting long for me?
When did the sky turn black?
Do you still want me back?
I’ll pick it all up piece by piece.”
It’s no coincidence that the highlight of Cash’s concert last month for me was her encore of “The Wheel,” performed solo and acoustic. Even without the driving, jubilant rhythms of John Leventhal’s electric guitar from the album version, she managed to give the song its widescreen, propulsive thrust: “And the wheel goes round and round / And the flame in our souls / It will never burn out.”
“Seventh Avenue,” the album’s second track, is my very favorite of Rosanne Cash’s songs, full-stop. I admire how quiet and introspective it feels, an open declaration and a private musing, just like all the best works of art. Anybody who’s spent a night in New York City, or even just a night alone anywhere, can relate to the intimate, emotional scene that she paints:
“The world keeps getting smaller
’Til it closes ’round my room
And everything I feel now
Is hard and fast and true
My window is a spotlight
On the madness down below
It takes a silent figure
To make this place a home.”
Most art that’s created, ideally, comes from within this same space, the silent, darkened room above a street, and certainly, that’s where most songs begin and take shape. This particular song is also born out of pain to some extent, as its gorgeous and plainspoken chorus makes clear: “Now the candles burn all night / Without you / And the moon hangs out of sight / So blue / On Seventh Avenue.” To telescope from a small room out into the heavens seems like exactly the right move to me, the way that gazing up at a star-filled sky feels like looking at everything and nothing at the same time. The great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges wrote a wonderful prose-poem about Shakespeare titled “Everything and Nothing.” Likewise, saying that “Seventh Avenue” captures everything and nothing is one of the best compliments that I can give it.
The album continues to balance intensity and ease on “Change Partners,” a soaring mediation on shifting gears to the “new dance” of a different and better relationship (“I’m purified by fire / Renewed by my desire”), via the uplift of a swooning piano refrain. “From the Ashes” takes the rising phoenix metaphor, as well as the sense of euphoria and reawakening, a few steps further, as does a later track, “Fire of the Newly Alive.”
But even love’s new dance has its moments of struggle, as on the melancholy, percussive “You Won’t Let Me In,” which Cash sings “like a girl / On the threshold of her life / In love with the whole world / But staring down each night,” sentiments that are again contemplated on “The Truth About You” and “Tears Falling Down” (“In the cradle of our fears / We sleep without tears”). These darker shades of feeling culminate on “Roses in the Fire,” Cash’s affecting look back at her former relationship, especially potent during an impassioned, point-blank lyrical bridge that’s the emotional vortex of the album: “Oh I’ll kill you if we can’t be friends / I’ll bleed like diamonds running through your hands / I’ll be a bitter taste you can’t forget / And I won’t leave this world until you relent.”
Redemption, however, is the main focus of the album. As Cash famously sings on “Sleeping in Paris,” “A lonely road is a bodyguard / If we really want it to be,” a lyric that she had originally jotted down in a notebook back when she was 17 and revived at just the right moment many years later. A bent for solitude can prevent us from connecting with others, yet it can also protect us until we’re truly ready to do so. The album’s spiritually inclined, ethereal closing number, “If There’s a God on My Side,” returns to a litany of questions that’s similar in tone to the ones that opened the record:
“If there’s a God on my side
Why don’t she show me her face?
If there’s a God on my side
Could she live in this place?
If there’s a God on my side
Is she inside these walls?
If there’s a God on my side
Could she not hear me call?”
The final impression is one of hope and earnest inquiry, but Cash’s obvious mood of uncertainty throughout these lyrics is equally significant and profound. In the context of her life as a whole, I find that element to be quite inspiring. As the daughter of one of the most celebrated figures in the history of American popular music, she was clearly in a privileged position both materially and in terms of preparation for a future career in music herself. But throughout that career, her search through the realm of art and expression has remained resolutely inconclusive, calmly unsure of what exactly she’ll find and how she might grow and change over time. Her willingness to accept the mysterious and the unknown as vital to the act of creating has made her a singer and songwriter of the highest caliber.
Perhaps the finest quality on The Wheel is the sense of immediacy and distillation it conveys from song to song. Cash’s lyrical approach is direct in style and in spirit, maybe because the album is about attempting to shed complexity in the midst of potentially overwhelming emotional complications. The idea that the universe is constantly moving, as a way of keeping our everyday selves unstuck in time, is somehow reassuring and also unsettling. That delicate tension, and the magical energy that’s produced by it, has kept me listening to the sounds of The Wheel nearly twenty years on.