'Hurt', the Nine Inch Nails song, was covered by Johnny Cash
on his 2002 album 'American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around
', with an acoustic guitar, piano and strings arrangement courtesy of producer Rick Rubin
. On release of the album the critics quickly acclaimed 'Hurt' as the outstanding track, and although it was not released as a single at the time it gathered substantial radio play.
A video for the song was produced by Mark Romanek (director of 'One Hour Photo' and many pop videos, including two for Nine Inch Nails). It featured stark shots of a clearly ailing Cash playing the song on the piano, mixed with images of him in his youth, of his wife, the late June Carter Cash, of a derelict museum devoted to Cash's life, and of Christ on the cross. The video had such an impact that the song was marked for single release in April 2003. Both Romanek and Trent Reznor himself reportedly broke into tears the first time they heard Cash's version.
Trent Reznor wrote 'Hurt' about the pain of addiction, but in the hands of the Man in Black it becomes a bleak illustration of the one thing that links all living creatures; death, something which has been stalking Cash for the last few years. Most of the rest of 'The Man Comes Around' deals with totality - the title track itself being a lighthearted song about the final reckoning, when the man comes around with the final cup.
Cash's battle with autonomic neuropathy and the effects of pneumonia are illustrated in his sole lyric change, from 'I wear this crown of shit' to 'I wear this crown of thorns'. Having raised all hell during his youth he affirmed his Christianity in the late-60s, and it has kept him going in the face of adversity. The album also includes a non-ironic cover of Depeche Mode's 'Personal Jesus'.
Rick Rubin's production leaves Johnny Cash's voice 'dry'; Cash delivers the lines with only a hint of his c&w twang, sounding older and sadder as the song progresses. During the last chorus Rubin allows Cash's voice to distort slightly, in order to be heard over the mounting piano and guitar. Reznor's lyrics are despairing, but coming from an old man, the unstoppable, stoppable Johnny Cash, the lines "what have I become / my sweetest friend / everyone I know / goes away / in the end" have an added poignancy. The addiction Reznor wrote about was ultimately self-inflicted and curable, but old age and death are inevitable, and no power on earth can turn back the clock. The final verse no longer offers hope, because there is no way to start again, at least not in this form.
The video, all 35mb of it, is available here:
And the story behind the video is here: