Johnny Cash might as well be an American institution. Many revere him and his recent death following the passing of his beloved wife, June Carter, was marked by much hoopla and circumstance. It was a shame, but by no means a shock. The triumphant and bleak sounding record, American IV: When the Man Comes Around, was a disturbing and wonderful album with which to end a long and storied career. Not only had Rick Rubin brought Johnny Cash back to music relevancy but also to commercial success that had long eluded the music legend.
According to the liner notes by Rubin, they started working on American V the day American IV was finished. Perhaps Johnny wanted to leave a more positive sounding last testament to his listeners. Perhaps, once June passed, he needed something positive to work on to occupy his mind. Either way, these are the recordings that Cash was working on at the time of his death.
American V: A Hundred Highways is a more resolved and less dreary themed record than American IV: When the Man Comes Around. However, Cash sounds tired and haggard on this album. During the progression the strength seems to come and go throughout the course of the record. With an even greater feeling of the leering figure of death hanging over him, Cash filled much of this effort with religious themes and stories of impending mortality. There are some brilliant songs here. "Help Me" is the first song, and, with the inclusion of the strings to accompany Cash and his guitar, it creates the effect of a solemn hymn. It definitely tugs at the heartstrings. "God's Gonna Cut You Down" is a great song, easily my favorite on the record. The stomping cadence and the guitar arrangement drives home the image of Cash as some stern lawman laying down a final warning to some sort of criminal element. It is excellent.
"Like the 309" was the last song written by Cash in his career. This is one of the songs that the tiredness shows in his voice. The lyrics are pretty good, and it is a rather catchy sounding ditty. Cash's version of the Bruce Springsteen song, "Further on up the Road" is damn good. I believe that it holds up well to the original and also gives it a color and mood different than that of Springsteen's version. "On the Evening Train" sounds like an ode to June's passing and his plan for what would be his short life following her death. It's eerie but comforting at the exact same time. "Four Winds" sounds like he is saying goodbye, but not in a depressing way. It sounds upbeat and reflective. "I'm Free of the Chain Gang Now" does not hold quite the closing impact on American V: A Hundred Highways as "We'll Meet Again" has on American IV: When the Man Comes Around, but it works. It ends the album on an upper rather than a downer.
At first listen, I considered this sub par from the quality that I had come to expect in Johnny Cash's work with Rick Rubin. But after a few listens, it become a record that felt strangely comforting and apros pos for what it is. I think that American V: A Hundred Highways loses some of its meaning and urgency when one knows that American VI is on the way. (If it has the themes of life after death and speaking from beyond the grave, I will quit listening to music. I pray that Rick Rubin does not pull a Tupac on us all with Johnny Cash.) Other than that, Rubin deserves credit for pulling this project together following John's passing. He assembled fitting musical arrangements around the skeletons that were left behind. All in all, Johnny Cash fans will not be disappointed. Good stuff although it falls short of the impact of his last record. Johnny Cash left us with at least one more good album in American V: A Hundred Highways.
It seems almost an old story now. Ailing musician hooks up with a contemporary producer and covers a mixture of contemporary songs. Tom Jones tried it. Rod Stewart tried it. It's an old story that so often ends up looking pathetic. A contrived attempt to mine the last fragments of dying fame, more often than it is a serious artistic venture. So, what is it about Johnny Cash that has allowed such an old story to take such original beauty? The honesty with which each one of these songs, almost handpicked for their dealings with death, destruction, God and eternal love, is sang? The frayed and despoiled, yet somehow, perennially distinctive voice? The fact that, with each break in that, once so strong, voice, one can almost hear the tears that want to come with each word?
At times, American V: A Hundred Highways is hard to listen to. Each time the voice breaks and the weakness grows through it, it's difficult to think of "The Man in Black." Each time he speaks, he speaks the words of a dying man that somehow seems to conflict with the general tone of the album. Maybe Cash wanted to leave a more upbeat but no less poignant final testament than American IV? Maybe these were the true "redemption songs" in which Cash found solace following the death of his wife? More likely, it seems, these are the songs that dealt best with Cash's life and most important memories - freedom, love, and God.
American V follows the same formula of the whole American series - a few originals thrown in with covers of songs from Bruce Springsteen to Hank Williams to Larry Gatlin, all played mostly with only the use of acoustic guitars and occasional ashen strings. Opening with a downbeat "Help Me", the heavy beats of "God's Gonna Cut You Down" soon take over and run into "Like the 309", surely one of the finest songs Cash has managed in a career that has included so many outstanding songs. The soft piano lines of Hank Williams' "On the Evening Train", the most overt dealing with death and the second of the Cash originals, "I Came to Believe", a song that seems to deal with both love and God, carry the messages of the album most poignantly and, as it closes through the mournful, yet somehow upbeat "I'm Free from the Chain Gang", the metaphors and messages of the American Recordings series seems somehow more obvious and pure than it ever was before.
You'd be hard pressed to find someone that doesn't know a Johnny Cash song, whether they realize it or not. So many Cash songs reverberate through the generations. Perhaps the songs on American V will never quite carry the same tenacity of "Ring of Fire" or "I Walk The Line" or even Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" but it's not really important. American V is an album that echoes with human emotion and plight. The songs on American V will be remembered for so much more than catchy melodies. They stand as a final testament to a man that, through his work with Rick Rubin, somehow managed to both transcend the country genre in which his fame was found and to make country music relevant to the wider world. American V seems a much more fitting end to that - the last renaissance of the dying man.
7.85 / 10
Reviewed by 2 writers.
Posted Nov. 12, 2004, 11:34 a.m.
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