Saturday, July 08, 2006

Learning How To Die

Johnny Cash - American V: A Hundred Highways

Make no mistake, this is an astounding album. Whilst it's always tempting to be cynical about posthumous releases (and I wish to make it clear from the outset that I have no desire to see Johnny Cash turned into the Tupac Shakur of country music), the overwheming power of these recordings is simply impossible to ignore. Inevitably, these final recordings made by Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin essentially offer more of the stark, neo-gothic acoustic arrangements of the previous albums in the American series. Some have complained that the song selection isn't so radical here - there's nothing as unexpected as the takes on Nine Inch Nails' 'Hurt' or Soundgarden's 'Rusty Cage'. Others have also highlighted the obvious vocal deterioration, although it's worth noting that this rarely effects pitch or phrasing. Cash's physical weakness only adds to the weight of wisdom in the face of vulnerability that characterises this collection and, for my money, this makes American V the finest album in the series so far. Here is a man still coming to terms with the death of his wife, also forced to stare his own square in the face. This being Johnny Cash of course, he doesn't even attempt to evade the issue.

Almost every track here seems weighted with thoughts of the end. On the opening 'Help Me' (written by Larry Gatlin), Cash makes an emotional plea for the strength to walk just one more mile. The arrangement has real gravitas, and the vocals (apparently recorded simply to a guide track before the musicians added their parts) are stately and dignified. On 'God's Gonna Cut You Down', Cash intones the God-fearing mantra (part of which was used by Moby for 'Run On') against a chain gang percussion track of stomps and handclaps, the performance imbued not just with righteous indignation, but also with wisdom gained through experience.

Elsewhere, the tone is more playful. Perhaps the most impressive transformation is the re-fashioning of Springsteen's 'Further On Up The Road'. On 'The Rising' it sounded dense, heavy and apocalyptic, a song paradoxically juxtaposing fear and hope for the post 9/11 world. Here, it is presented as a jaunty shuffle, Cash facing death with his 'lucky graveyard boots and smiling skull ring' as if it was something to be laughed off with a resigned shrug. It's an enticingly playful interpretation and it's difficult to imagine any other singer so completely changing the style and impact of a song. The album may well be best remembered for 'Like The 309', a similarly blackly comic song and Johnny Cash's final recorded composition. It's not a major work as 'The Man Comes Around' was, but it's warmth and humour leave a lingering impression.

Even the songs that could potentially have been mawkish end up devastatingly moving. Rod McKuen's 'Love's Been Good To Me', famously performed by Frank Sinatra, here sounds like a frankly positive interpretation of a life well lived. Don Gibson's 'Legend In My Time' could have come across as hubris in the hands of a lesser artist - but only the most churlish would deny Cash the right to enjoy his status in his final months.

Best of all are two deceptively simple takes on well-worn standards. Hank Williams' 'On The Evening Train', its story telling of a widower watching his wife's body being carried away obviously resonated strongly with Cash following June Carter's death. It makes for an uncomfortably upfront listen. Gordon Lightfoot's 'If You Could Read My Mind' is transformed from relatively lightweight middle of the road country into something weighty and significant, with Cash struggling to control his faltering vocal.

It's hard to escape the sense that American V is the sound of a man literally learning how to die, and using the standard American musical catalogue to heal his remaining wounds - dealing with those long-standing debts to God, and coping with the loneliness and sadness of life's final days. There is a staggering depth of wisdom and experience here. Even though Cash didn't write most of these words - he has left his lasting imprint on every single line. A Hundred Highways and he'd walked every last one of them. If only we could all live so well.

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