This is another of those obvious cover versions. Every internet wonk who’s ever done a list of the ‘best cover versions of all time’ has this at or near the top. With good reason.
The original was a melancholy, largely acoustic ending to Nine Inch Nails’ second album The Downward Spiral. Introspective and full of self-loathing, it comes across as a cry for help from that ‘very dark place’ of popular artistic cliché.
Trent Reznor was initially uncomfortable with the idea of Cash using the song, fearing that the idea was ‘gimmicky’, but eventually he approved its use. When he heard the cover he immediately knew that the song was no longer his. This was the definitive version.
Johnny Cash’s Hurt smooths out the (deliberate) atonality of Reznor’s composition, replaces the phrase ‘crown of shit’ with ‘crown of thorns’ and, most vitally, has Cash’s voice; diminished by the decades since his heyday, but all the more engaging for its audible frailty and still with its old authority.
Cash’s version of the song is simultaneously bleak and uplifting – perfectly suited to the contradictory Johnny Cash legend; the Christian rock and roll rebel, devoted husband, outlaw and sinner, forever mourning the death of his brother in childhood and anticipating a reunion with him in heaven, while also fearing for his soul.
Lines like “If I could start again a million miles away” take on new gravitas when sung by a man – an icon – nearing the end of his life. It’s immensely touching and painfully raw. This song, and the powerful accompanying video, opened the music of Johnny Cash up to a new generation at the very tail end of his legendary career.
Cash’s cover only gained in poignancy when his beloved wife and collaborator, June died shortly after its release; “Everyone I know goes away, in the end”.
Of course The Man In Black himself died a couple of months after that. The song was a huge hit, and whether it was meant as a eulogy or not, there’s no denying it works perfectly in that capacity.