JOHNNY CASH – American VI: Ain’t No Geave (2010)

Johnny Cash is one of the very few musicians who needs absolutely no introduction. Cash’s music, decades of it, speaks for itself. And when Cash passed into the great beyond in 2003, less than four months after June Carter did, he left behind a musical legacy that will never fade from memory. But there were still some final pieces of this legacy that had yet to be revealed. After Carter’s death, Cash had continued recording for the American series he’d started with Rick Rubin in the early 1990’s (even though he was so frail at that point that he couldn’t play guitar), and when he died, there was enough unreleased, recorded material left of his for two more albums, though it’d have to be assembled first.

The first of these, 2006’s American V: A Hundred Highways, was pitch-perfect in tone and scope; Cash’s powerful, thunderous voice quaked across the songs, but he never lost an ounce of authority in it. The entire thing seemed to emanate from another world, and when Personal File (a collection of secret recordings Cash had been making since the 1970’s) was released later that year, it seemed as though his posthumous releases would collectively be one final jewel in Cash’s prestigious musical crown. And to be sure, the aforementioned albums are. But the final American album, American VI: Ain’t No Grave, is an uneven collection. Not that this is Cash’s fault (how could it be?), but if this is truly to be the last new material we see from Cash (and it certainly looks that way), it’s hard to deny that it’s a bit disappointing.

It doesn’t start that way, though. The opening two songs (Ain’t No Grave and Redemption Day, originally written by Claude Ely and Sheryl Crow, respectively) both perfectly exemplify one of Cash’s most well-worn motifs: troubled, yet awe-filled religious prophecy. And the following two songs, For The Good Times (originally by Kris Kristofferson) and I Corinthians 15:55 (most likely the final original song by Cash we’re likely to hear) switch the tone of the album up nicely, into a place that’s uplifting but not elegiac. Unfortunately, the album doesn’t stay out of the elegiac waters for long; that’s pretty much the only direction it goes after the cover of A Satisfied Mind (originally by Red Heyes and Jack Rhodes; Cash’s cover had previously appeared on the Kill Bill Vol. 2 soundtrack in 2004). Songs like I Don’t Hurt Anymore, Cool Water and Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream all seem too mellow and simple to be the final pieces of Cash’s last American album (and by extension, his canon). And the final song, Aloha Oe (written by Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch), is an extraordinarily puzzling way to end the album. It simply doesn’t make sense. Listen to We’ll Meet Again or I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now (from American IV and V, respectively), and the listen to Aloha Oe, knowing full well that this is the end. It just doesn’t work.

Now don’t misunderstand me – I know Cash picked these songs (and all the songs presented in the American series) because they were dear to him or they affected him in some way. And his vocal performance isn’t bad on any of them. But the way these songs are organized and presented here feels…disingenuous somehow, and the impact of these songs (and consequently, of the album as a whole) are lessened by it. Perhaps I’m being to clinical, and I’m analyzing the album too closely, thinking of it too much as part of a whole – but really, how else am I supposed to look at it? When it comes to figures as monumental as Johnny Cash, who’ve given the world so much, and who still exist profoundly in our collective mind’s eye, you can’t help but take an album like this for what it is: the end. Their final offering to us. And in that context, American VI: Ain’t No Grave is a tough pill to swallow.

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