American V: A Hundred Highways

Johnny Cash

Lost Highway, 2006

http://www.johnnycash.com

REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/26/2006

In my eyes, Johnny Cash has yet to depart this earth. With the recent surge of interest in Cash, thanks in part to the film Walk The Line, the Man In Black has remained in the public consciousness. That speaks volumes about the man himself, who had been largely forgotten for two decades until the mid '90s.

Cash’s American Recordings albums with Rick Rubin brought him back from the abyss of obscurity. That being said, there is one key difference between American V and the rest of the series; this time, Johnny isn’t here.

When word first crept around that Rubin was going back to the tapes to assemble two more American Recordings albums; my first though was dread. To many, Unearthed would have seemed to be the perfect swan song for Cash. Furthermore, and most importantly, Rubin inevitably would have to make assumptions of what Cash would have wanted for the music.

All those worries are dispelled with the opening track “Help Me.” The old and familiar sound of just Cash and his guitar greet the listener, as if to reassure you that things won’t be different. Slowly, the mournful wail of an orchestra creeps through, as Johnny just begs for help. It’s heart-wrenching and sets the perfect tone for the rest of the record..

The context surrounding American V cannot be dismissed; the music serves as a window into the final months of Cash’s life. Cash recorded this material with the specter of death hanging over him, and I’m sure he had no misconceptions about how much time he had left. The songs chosen almost seem to solidify his mindset. Death has been a focus of Cash’s work, but this time it’s different.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

There is no question that Cash’s vocals are his “worst” of the series. They break, crack, and fail at various points. But even after its prime, Cash’s voice remains steadfastly powerful. There is an added impact to his words, it being quite apparent that Cash is not long for the world. There is the weary desperation of “Help me,” the acceptance of “Love’s Been Good To Me” and the relief of “I’m Free From the Chain Gang Now.”

Rick Rubin’s production was the concern to fans of Cash, and rightly so. Posthumous releases are tricky, even for Rubin, who had developed a tremendous relationship with Cash. However, the production does nothing but provide support for Cash; it never overwhelms his contributions. For example, Rubin surrounded the menacing and razor-edge vocals of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down, with a threatening stomp and clap beat; the effect is enough to make a heathen consider converting.

Ironically, while Rubin managed to keep the proceedings relatively simple, this record is simultaneously more accessible then most of the other American Recordings. To call American V conventional would be wrong, but it isn’t as bare and daring as the first volume of the series. The covers are just as familiar as years past; Cash gives a beautiful rendition of “If You Could Read My Mind,” removing any trace of schmaltz from the Gordon Lightfoot tune. The trademark Cash humor has also remained. “Like the 309,” the last song Cash supposedly wrote, finds the protagonist asking for release for his asthma before he passed on.

So what accounts for this accessibility? Given that this is some of Cash’s last work, there’s the obvious sense of finality. This album is one portion of the last piece of the puzzle, a summation of the last decade of Cash’s work. American V provides a perspective through which one can trace the evolution of the American Recordings series from beginning to end. It sounds the same, but the motivations and circumstances behind it are entirely different.

During the week this review was written, American V debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. To me, that is a mind-blowing achievement. Here is a man who passed on roughly three years ago, yet his music still draws people and speaks to them. In this humble reviewer's opinion, American V should be the end. This record says everything Cash and Rubin wanted to say and more. I can think of no more fitting work to serve as the capper to a brilliant career.

Rating: A

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© 2006 Jeff Clutterbuck and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Lost Highway, and is used for informational purposes only.