Johnny Cash’s death in 2003, although it didn’t have the shock impact of that of John Lennon or Kurt Cobain, was still met with an outpouring of genuine sorrow. One of music’s true legends, his death was all the more poignant due to the fact that his career had been somewhat revitalized by his collaboration with Rick Rubin on the American series of recordings.
Now, with a whole new generation introduced to the Cash legend thanks to this year’s Walk The Line biopic, comes the fifth instalment of American (but not the final apparently – Rubin’s already preparing a sixth), recorded during the last few months of Cash’s life. This is no barrel scrapping exercise or an unseemly attempt to profit on Cash’s legacy – rather, it is put together with a huge degree of dignity and respect that makes it the perfect swansong for the Man In Black.
The 12 tracks here were recorded when Cash’s health was at its worst, and he’d also suffered the blow of losing his beloved wife June (who died just three months before he did). That means it’s impossible to listen to the album without an almost unbearable sense of poignancy, yet it always manages to steer clear of being depressing.
Previous Cash/Rubin collaborations saw him covering contemporary artists such as Nick Cave, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails, but the emphasis is more on the traditional here. The most current artist covered is Bruce Springsteen (a masterfully stripped down version of The Rising’s Further On Up The Road), while songs by Hank Williams and Gordon Lightfoot sit side by side with Cash’s own compositions.
One of the most successful covers here is the traditional gospel song God’s Gonna Cut You Down (popularised by Moby as Run On), performed here by Cash as a dark blues number steeped in menace. Like The 309, Cash’s final composition, is in a similar blusey vein although it’s impossible not to be affected by the opening line of “it should be a while before I see Doctor Death”.
Although Cash’s voice by this time was a frail instrument, much changed from the rich baritone of his prime years, he still sings these songs beautifully. Hank Williams’ On The Evening Train is immensely powerful, concerning as it does a man burying his spouse, with Cash’s own personal loss throwing an enormous shadow over the listener. Nothing quite matches the poignancy of the opening Help Me, a plea to God by a former unbeliever as he stares death in the face. It’s a beautiful song, but damn hard to listen to.
Rubin’s production, as ever, is superb, giving most songs a restrained, low-key setting and just letting Cash’s extraordinarily emotive voice tell his stories. Although only two of the songs here were written by Cash, some may as well have been written for him, such as Rose Of My Heart which is impossible not to hear as a tribute to June Carter Cash. The final I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now is weary, stately and dignified, the perfect sign off from a true giant of music.
While American V is an undeniably emotional and melancholy listen, it’s also an ultimately life-affirming one. Cash was wheelchair bound and nearly blind when he recorded these songs, yet the man’s strength, inner calm and humour shine through. As an example of the redemptive power of music, this really can’t be bettered.