Out February 26th, American VI: Ain’t No Grave scrapes together the final recordings of the late, indubitably great Man In Black, Johnny Cash.
To dismiss his music is to admit that you have no soul. To question the motives of supervisor and producer Rick Rubin is to blaspheme. Yet while we could never do either of those things, we’d be lying to you if we called this second posthumous studio album essential.
At Folsom Prison remains the album to own if you only own one Johnny Cash album, and everything since is weighed against its spontaneous magic and desperado energy. It’s a classic, and more punk rock than most punk rock records. It was this inspiring bravado (and raw talent) rather than good timing, that truly rejuvenated his career in the early 1990s. Saint Rick of course gets credit for seeing it, for bringing Cash to American, and for letting the songs speak clearly in the production. Cash’s first three American albums passed muster, and represented a grand return of a true outlaw hero.
Having said that, as much as it pains us to take issue with something so inevitable and innocent, in his final years, Cash’s creative energy noticeably waned. His cover of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt was touching, and carried The Man Comes Around to a platinum certification. However, the poignancy came more from context than the performance itself. And the way we see it, the commercial success of the fourth American album was balance paid for the first three, each superior to IV as a whole.
American VI opens with the title track, Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold This Body Down). One of the first posthumous album’s few outstanding moments was Cash’s rendition of God’s Gonna Cut You Down. Ain’t No Grave captures the spirit of that recording. Yet while it’s hard to avoid the impression that it was only left off of A Hundred Highways due to this similarity, it’s the less effective of the two.
Unfortunately, the title track is one of the best selections. It would be naïve to expect that American VI would be anything other than leftovers, and the four songs that follow are rarely more. The covers of Sheryl Crow’s Redemption Day and Kris Kristofferson’s For The Good Times are formulaic, an application of the Johnny Cash somber-ification filter to songs that weren’t especially spectacular to begin with.
First Corinthians follows, the only new original song on Ain’t No Grave. It’s a Johnny Cash hymnal, its chorus a recital of 1 Corinthians 15:55: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Yet this is anything but a surrender. The biblical passage surrounding this verse is one of resurrection:
“All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another.”
1 Corinthians 15:26 says “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Directly preceding 15:55 is the proclamation that when the earthly body has been saved by its metamorphosis into a heavenly body, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
Thus First Corinthians is a final confirmation of faith in God, in faith that June Carter Cash has found glory in the afterlife, and that he is ready to join her. It’s essentially a respectful “fuck you” to death itself. In our eyes this makes it the most important song on the album, completely aside from the fact that it’s the one that he wrote. It hardens the theme stated in the album’s title, and title track, and it shows that there was at least an underlying message, from Cash himself, supporting the presentation of these final recordings.
While Corinthians is the definitive selection, speaking more objectively, it’s A Satisfied Mind that is the finest cut overall. Though the song has been performed by many artists over the years, from Porter Wagoner to Jeff Buckley, Cash’s version is definitely one of the most potent. Quite an accomplishment. The only problem is that it’s an old recording we’ve already heard, released in 2004 on the Kill Bill: Volume 2 soundtrack.
Aside from Satisfied Mind and the stirring rendition of Hank Snow’s I Don’t Hurt Anymore, for the most part, these covers come off as exercises more than performances. And though it plucks the heartstrings to listen to the man’s final stretch, it would have done more justice to his genius to present them in a greater context, perhaps as part of the Unearthed box set, rather than as a 10 track, 32 minute last gasp.
Read Rick Rubin’s recollection of the final recording sessions in Johnny’s writeup from earlier this month.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.