Rosanne Cash’s second album for Columbia Records was a turning point in her career. Although Grammy Awards came later, it was with ‘Seven Year Ache’ that Cash announced herself to the world as a major songwriting and singing talent. It was a commercial success, reaching number one on the Billboard Country Chart and number 26 on the mainstream Billboard Chart. Two of the album’s three Country Chart-topping singles were written by Cash herself, ‘Blue Moon with Heartache’ and the title track, ‘Seven Year Ache’, which also reached number 22 on the pop charts.
Those references to aching hearts sum up the record’s overarching themes of the desperation and resignation around a disintegrating relationship, the conflicting feelings of holding on to love while needing to let go and, in the end, finding some kind of hope and reconciliation, felt in the song ‘I Can’t Resist’: “In from the outside at last // I’ve lived alone in your past // I’ve known no love like this // I can’t resist, Knowing love like this.” The album was produced by Cash’s then-husband, Rodney Crowell, a fabulous songwriter himself. Although their marriage would later falter, the album was not actually autobiographical.
Cash had been unable to tour her previous record because of her pregnancy and the intense recording sessions for ‘Seven Year Ache’ took place when her first baby was just seven months old. Perhaps the challenge of balancing the demands of being a recording artist and being a young mother was channelled into ‘Seven Year Ache’, resulting in a consistently listenable and coherent album. There’s plenty of variety on offer, including more energetic country-rockers, mid-tempo numbers and slow, gentle ballads. Despite the changes in pace, the record hangs together well; it’s sonically balanced and lyrically cohesive. Lighter moments like the upbeat ‘What Kind of Girl’ complement the more reflective pieces.
Cash’s life may have been full of upheaval at the time but the whole thing feels composed. Some of the credit for that must go, of course, to her team of excellent collaborators. Crowell had grown as a producer and the players included Hank DeVito on steel guitar, Albert Lee on guitar and multi-instrumentalist Emory Gordy, Jr. As well as Cash’s own material, the songs include compositions by the likes of Steve Forbert, Merle Haggard, Rodney Crowell and Tom Petty. However, against such illustrious competition, her own songs are actually the best and, most of all, it’s all carried by Cash’s melodious vocals, often sounding weary and resigned, even when the words seem desperate. This is particularly true on ‘Blue Moon with Heartache’ and the slow, hymn-like ‘Where Will the Words come From?’, on which she sings: “Where will the words come from // When I tell you I don’t love you // I don’t need you anymore?” It’s hard not to be moved.
Of course, the real highlight is the title track, written by Rosanne Cash. ‘Seven Year Ache’ is just about the most hummable tune in country music. It’s lyrically smart and busy: “And everybody’s talking but you don’t hear a thing // You’re still uptown on your downhill swing // so who does your past belong to today.”
Like much of the music of its time, ‘Seven Year Ache’ includes 1980s flourishes of percussion and instrumentation that’s not to everyone’s tastes and, later in her career, Cash would turn away from the more pop-country elements of her work and embrace more stripped-back material, such as on ‘Interiors’, and more roots-based Americana, including Grammy-winning ‘The River & the Thread’. However, ‘Seven Year Ache’ never stops being a fine country album of well-crafted songs; the melodies, song-structures and lyrics have more than stood the test of time. This is a classic album that was a game-changer for one of Americana’s most celebrated artists. Go back in time and listen to Cash’s plaintive: “What would I give to be a diamond in your eyes again?”