Rosanne Cash sounds as if she’s lived every word she sings on The Wheel — and she probably has. On its predecessor, Interiors (1990), Cash peeled back the layers of her seemingly well-balanced marriage to New Country singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell to reveal a troubled woman and a rocky relationship. It wasn’t pretty, but it was compelling. Last year, she and Crowell did in fact divorce, and Cash left Nashville for New York City to kick-start her life. And that’s where The Wheel picks up.
If you’re in search of specifics about marital dissolution, stick with an old George and Tammy record. Even to say that The Wheel is about breaking up with a spouse and changing lifestyles in midstream sells it short. As any thinking, feeling mortal knows, life is never that simple. The Wheel, an intensely spiritual and ultimately uplifting album, is about making life choices and sticking with them even as you’re hounded by doubt and uncertainty — it’s the pop version of An Unmarried Woman.
To the accompaniment of a guitar lick straight off a U2 record, Cash confidently announces her reawakening in the opening ”The Wheel,” only to realize in the spare, lovely ”Seventh Avenue” that ”the world keeps getting smaller/’Til it closes ’round my room.” Other songs grapple with the games men and women play involving commitment (”You Won’t Let Me In”) and betrayal (the bitter, tongue-lashing ”Roses in the Fire”). And in a happy ending of sorts, Rosie finds satisfaction — in ”Fire of the Newly Alive,” a musical cauldron about adult sexual rebirth that, while not at all explicit, doesn’t need to be. Cash’s voice, which simmers against a smoky organ, says it all.
You’re probably thinking: Great, another pop star going through a mid-life crisis. Yet part of Cash’s gift is her ability to invest the most mundane imagery — the wheel as life cycle in the title song, or rising ”from the ashes” as a form of renewal — and make it breathe anew. For that, you can again credit her honey-with-granola voice, a no-nonsense instrument that can sound like a clenched jaw or a streaming tear — and still seem in control either way. On the ballads about the intimacies between a man and a woman, like the unadorned ”The Truth About You,” this approach makes the difference between hearing someone merely sing a song and feeling as if you’re in the room with those two people, overhearing their hushed confessions. With its china-delicate ballads and modest folk rock, The Wheel is as intimate as a coffeehouse concert; it won’t be mistaken for any of Cash’s earlier, spunkier, country-rooted records.
For all her talent, Cash has yet to make an album that, from start to finish, does her justice. To some degree, that’s still true. The production — by Cash and multi-instrumentalist John Leventhal — can be overly creamy, as if Cash has been spending too much time with the precious likes of Shawn Colvin. These, however, are niggling criticisms. As Cash sings in ”Change Partners,” ”In the middle of my life/When my fate was sealed and tied/The heavens rain down fire.” On The Wheel, she not only survives the flames but truly rises from those ashes. A-