Pop music sometimes seems like a refuge for perpetual adolescents, or a place where the middle-aged look back nostalgically at youth. Cash is one of the few singer-songwriters, male or female, who not only transcends the many pop genres she draws from, but also fully inhabits her work as a genuine, emotional adult.
In her eighth album, following in the ground-breaking confessional footsteps of Interiors (1990), Cash continues to honor the complexities of experience with songs of brave vulnerability and rare thoughtfulness. Some listeners have found Cash to be excessively dour, but the truth is that she is an unsurpassed artist of lyrical chiaroscuro, and the play of light and shadow in her songs is lively, moving and honest.
Interiors seemed to take place during a single dark night of the soul, but The Wheel sounds like a series of diary entries by a hopeful, awakening survivor who is tracing the ups and downs of starting over. The album kicks off with the ringing title track, an anthem about confusion turning into passionate affirmation, and then explores the paradox of solitude in the city in the ballad "Seventh Avenue." "Tears Falling Down" shows the proximity of joy and sorrow without diminishing the reality of happiness, and "Fire of the Newly Alive" slyly quotes Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" and offers a passionate female voice on the subject of loving lust. The album's high point is "Change Partners," an achingly beautiful study of rediscovered romance that describes Cash's faith in dreams and new visions: "The courage to go deep/ Is gathered while we sleep."
A few songs fall short by failing to provide the musical firepower to match the intensity of Cash's lyrics. But coproducer and guitarist John Leventhal, who also collaborated with Cash in writing several songs, generally provides impeccable support for Cash's sure-footed melodies, achieving maximum power with minimum aggressiveness. (Columbia)