The man in black strikes once again

Can a codger be cutting-edge?

If you’re Johnny Cash, it’s no problem.

The same man who blew out 71 candles on his birthday cake last week has one of the hottest numbers on alternative-rock radio. Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt” is getting major play on the nation’s most influential alt-station, L.A.’s KROQ, and has inspired steady spins on similar formats around the country, from New York’s K-Rock to Atlanta’s 99X.

As a result, Cash’s latest CD, “American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around,” leaped from No. 85 to 58 on this week’s Billboard Top 200 Album list.

After a mere five weeks on the chart, the CD has moved more records than Cash’s last album did in two years: 187,650 to the 178,000 tally for 2000’s “Solitary Man.” And momentum is still building.

“The Man Comes Around” is by far the most commercially successful of Cash’s “comeback” albums, which began with 1994’s “American Recordings” (total sales: 64,000). The strategy for the four projects, brainstormed by producer Rick Rubin, is to match the original Man in Black with today’s alterna-rock touchstones, from Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” to Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat.”

A key to the breakthrough of “American IV” is the startling video for “Hurt.” Directed by MTV luminary Mark Romanek, the clip inverts the sex and glamour of most music videos to lean into images of a fragile Cash, who broods: “What have I become?”

Not only does the video refuse to flinch from Cash’s current ailing state (he suffers from autonomic neuropathy, a neurological disorder), it intercuts that with images of him in his prime. Instead of repelling viewers, the result has become a VH1 hit.

The network has also been running feature pieces about the album, which include plugs from Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow. Even MTV2 has given space to the video, amid hipsters like The Raveonettes and The Transplants.

Cash owes no thanks to country radio for his success. While “The Man Comes Around” appears on Billboard’s Nashville-centric chart, reaching as high as No. 12 there, the position was earned purely by sales. In a national survey of country-music stations, only one twang-attuned outlet showcased the record. Thankfully, the nation’s more youthful stations have shown far more wisdom.