Rosanne Cash: “Paralyzed” (Interiors, 1990)
In 1990 Rosanne Cash released Interiors, her first self-produced record. In a gesture more dramatic and isolating, it was also her first album to feature zero production from soon-to-be-ex-husband Rodney Crowell. Crowell isn’t subtracted lightly from Rosanne Cash’s career. Some of Cash’s most powerful moments are in her dense articulations of his songs, particularly “I Don’t Have to Crawl” from 1987’s King’s Record Shop, where her voice drags his words with slow deliberation, as if by chain. Crowell’s voice is a shadow on Interiors, winding a low and spectral course beneath Cash in ”On the Surface.” He manages a brief writing credit on “Real Woman.” According to Cash’s autobiography, Crowell’s contribution reduced the song to “a fucking Pepsi commercial.”
It’s certainly the bounciest track on Interiors; the shuffle of the drums and the sweetness of the guitar tone blend nearly into the saccharine. Cash, however, is elsewhere, trying to determine what it means to be a “real woman” outside the realm of male surveillance. Her voice is incredible; its initially smooth texture veils a smoky interior. But as a lyricist she’s almost invisibly powerful. “I don’t want to check my appearance in your eyes,” she sings, condensing in a single line the experience and apprehension of being spectrally observed by a culture of men.
This is the reigning tension of Interiors; the immaculate production, the severe clarity in the instruments casts the raw and unresolved qualities of Cash’s lyrics into stark relief. Her gently sharpened words also reflect back onto the music, carving uncanny resonances deep in the glossy tableau. The guitars alone seem to glow from a nameless depth.
The imagery of Interiors is bracingly literal, all of its drama internally staged. Tracks one and three are titled, respectively, “On the Inside” and “On the Surface,” the latter detailing the outward calm and domestic regularity of a relationship; this tranquility, of course, is used to obscure whole annihilated dimensions within. When Cash refers to events or people outside of her characters, like chilling newspaper stories, or the substance of memories from which her characters are irrevocably withdrawn, they feel almost alien and hostile to the scene. They move through the songs with the intoxicated drift of ghosts.
"Paralyzed" ends the record with Cash’s narrator eavesdropping on a phone conversation between her husband and another woman. The entire world of the record has receded to Cash, accompanied by piano, the dry escalations of her voice inhabiting a weariness that’s earned rather than resigned. "A lifetime between us, just burnt on the wires / Dissolved in a dial tone, consumed in your fires," she sings in a perilous note, but with unbelievable, heartbreaking control, a determined crispness in her phrasing. I hear in it the sound of one’s life realigning to the length of disaster. When characters in John Cheever’s stories experience infidelity, they seem to loosen from the order of time. When Mr. Estabrook sits down on the couch next to Mrs. Zagreb, he finds himself “immersed in her mouth, as if it was a maelstrom; spun around thrice and sped down the length of some stupendous timelessness.” In Proust, Odette reveals to Swann a whole order of sensual transgressions, and Swann, already embittered and jealous, becomes for a moment lost in the pain of this revelation; it brutally alters the nature of his history with her:
The memory of the evening…was painful to him, but it was only the center of his disease. The latter irradiated confusedly on all sides through the days before and after it. And whatever point in it he tried to touch in his memories, it was the whole of that season…that hurt him.
There’s the curious way, when one surrenders to an experience that’s emotionally overwhelming, that the sequence of events in one’s life seems to dissolve entirely into a faintly understood gauze, against which disembodied emotions burn. One slips from the integrity of sense and experience into a recursive and rawly ordered loop, as if caught indefinitely in the rhythm of a song.
Interiors as an album makes terrestrial shape from this emotional imbalance, which in life is experienced in a considerably more distracted and invisible way. The record is a vision of self-destruction and restoration and individual stocktaking so intense and accurate it feels spiritually advanced, and it’s artistic success can be isolated, I think, to Cash’s voice, which has an astounding capacity for embodying narrative. At the end of “Paralyzed,” her character having resolved to leave her husband, Cash sings ”I’ll move on / I’ll go higher,” and it sounds as if she herself is lifted away.