Johnny Cash, American VI
By Ryan Hamm
February 23, 2010
There’s not a whole lot that can be said about Johnny Cash at this point. The myth has been written over and over again; the legend has built and built; and the eulogies have all been given.
So what’s left?
Well, honestly, probably not much. At least that’s how it sounds from American VI: Ain’t No Grave, the final collection of songs from Cash’s ridiculously prolific recording stretch with uber-producer Rick Rubin. Sadly, American VI doesn’t live up to its predecessors; it’s more like a somber and incidental (and occasionally great) coda than a necessary contribution to the Man in Black’s extensive catalogue.
If you’ve heard any of the other American recordings, you know what to expect: a spare, frail Cash using his still-powerful baritone to sing songs (mostly about his always-favorite topics of love, God and death) over spare instrumentation assisted by thundering and perfectly meshed instrumentation. That style is displayed best on the title track, where Cash still manages a half-snarl challenge to death (and rejoicing at the resurrection of the dead) over brushed snare, banjo and foot stomps (the latter two provided by members of the similarly Rubin-assisted Avett Brothers).
Another highlight is the Cash-penned “1 Corinthians 15:55.” There’s something still powerful in hearing an elderly man sing about his own mortality—particularly when his work is being released posthumously. “Cool Water” sounds like the classic country Cash has been playing his whole career—probably because that’s just what it is (it was originally written in 1936).
Cash’s voice finds some of its previous power in “A Satisfied Mind” (previously only released on the Kill Bill Vol. 2 soundtrack). And “Redemption Day” contains the type of piano-pounding gravitas that has lent so many of the recordings in the American albums their power. It stands as the best track on American VI—even though it’s kind of strange to hear someone do something so great with a song written by Sheryl Crow.
Unfortunately, American VI has more than its share of missteps too. If “Redemption” retains the sound and tone that has made Cash’s latter day work so powerful, much of the rest of the this album resembles demos that are just produced a little more. “Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound,” while poignant for its questioning in the face of death, is nonetheless a fairly boring track, and “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” is one of those songs that tries to force Cash’s voice into a setting it doesn’t quite fit.
But that song’s mistakes are nothing in comparison to “Aloha Oe,” which is the Hawaiian “goodbye song.” Again, the lyrics here are appropriate—it’s just the setting that’s not quite appropriate. Perhaps Cash could have sung a Hawaiian ballad in his earlier years (though it’s strange that he’d want to), but here the song limps along and comes across as karaoke. Hardly the most fitting way to musically send off one of rock n’ roll, country and gospel’s greatest singers ever.
All of this is not to say that this is a bad album; it’s still Johnny Cash, so it’s still got some powerful and moving pieces. It’s just not as cohesive or (dare I say) necessary as the other entries in the American series. Those felt like they needed to be released—that to keep them in a studio vault somewhere would be to betray Cash’s memory. Some of the recordings on American VI feel more like b-sides or songs that would best be released in a box set. In fact, some of them actually sound a bit like they’re cashing in (no pun intended) on the memory of Johnny Cash.
It’s something Rubin has been accused of in the past, but at least up until this point, it’s been a pretty futile charge. This album has enough bright spots that you want to believe the best about this one too—especially since it really is supposed to be the last album. But if American VII ever sees the light of day ... it might be time to finally say goodbye to the Man in Black.