(Un)covered: Hurt

Johnny Cash vs. Nine Inch Nails By | January 29, 2015 at 2:00 PM

Original Songwriter: Trent Reznor
Original Release Date: March 8, 1994

If you’ve ever heard the deep, sonorous croon of Johnny Cash, you might understand why I feel such an affinity for The Man In Black. I grew up listening to Cash with my dad, before I had any of my own bands to obsess over. The same simple country-rock tinged melodies and honest lyrics captivated me at a young age, just as they captivated the country in Cash’s prime. However, despite the man’s incredible repertoire of studio releases and popular singles (nearly 100 records to his name), it’s his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”, which he recorded near the end of his life, that is perhaps one of the greatest songs by the legend.

Nine Inch Nails’ vocalist Trent Reznor succeeds in singing with the creepiest whisper ever recorded on his 1994 single “Hurt”. Something about the lyrics that are sung, or rather muttered, in the first heavy, breathy verse, makes me feel like I am inside his head. Built on a foundation of eerie, underlying static that resonates through all the quiet spaces of this song, it’s clear that every moment is designed to unsettle you. Still, once the force of his vocals edge their way through the sparse melody, a mood created by guitar, piano, and vocals alone, the song gains its depth and demands to be felt. Reznor sings, “If you could have it all / my empire of dirt/ I would let you down/ I would make you hurt” proving that it also has some of the most depressing lyrics of all time. Reznor’s vicious lyrics, which deal with themes of self-harm and depression, dig in deep, like barbed hooks and make it almost uncomfortable to listen to. But, the dissonance and discomfort used in “Hurt” prove to be what make it all the more powerful.  

Flash forward to 2006, when the country and rock ‘n’ roll legend Johnny Cash covers this song. For Cash, making music never stopped. His career spanned the majority of his life and he released 96 albums with various record labels over the course of 51 years. “Hurt” was recorded for Cash’s album American IV: The Man Comes Around, the fourth in the American Recordings series, which was released just a year before his death. Of all of the covers I have collected and loved over the years, Cash’s version of “Hurt” is the one that reigns supreme and will be very difficult favorite to dethrone in the future. To begin with, there’s the initial nostalgia I feel for nearly all of Cash’s music, since I practically grew up listening to him. On a more mechanical level, this song delightfully lacks complexity, and instead, each note is easy to digest without becoming too simplistic or boring. But on this song especially, it is easily Cash’s weary voice that tears open whatever emotive restrictions I think I possess, and forces me to face every range of loneliness, pain, and frustration described in “Hurt.” It is his subtle and steady approach to the words of this song that make them cut so deep. Cash takes an already bare song and strips it down even further until we are left with only the bones–a chilling melody carried by the gentle strum of an acoustic guitar and accompanied by the deep rumble of a piano and the faintest echo of a flute. This is a song that can never grow old. It will never expire or become outdated. Cash has a classic voice, and paired with the timelessness of the guitar and the all too common emotions dealt with in the song, he has created a cover that is even better than the original. This is the song I play when I need to hear something everlastingly tragic (and there are those days).

I have always struggled with picking favorites when it comes to music. There are so many songs that encompass my passions, and they range from all sorts of albums, genres, and eras of my life. However, I can say without any hesitation that Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” is my all-time favorite cover in the world. It is not tentative, and it is not a placeholder. While I’m open to the idea of some song, someday, replacing it as number one, this song will not slide into second place very easily.

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