Well, to some of you who may have read my entry on the “final” Johnny Cash album toward the end of the 2009 project, you may remember me saying something that “that closes the book on Johnny Cash”, but it looks like I was wrong! American Recordings put out an album for Cash’s 78th birthday this last February, and wow did they ever save the best for last. Think “Hurt” is the best he could do*? Think “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now” was the best “farewell” song to a performer’s life since “Keep Me In Your Heart For Awhile”? Well think again, because American VI: Ain’t No Grave blows all of those out of the water!
And if you believe that, I’ve got some swamp land in Florida I’d be interested in showing you, to borrow an old idiom.
Speaking of borrowing something old:
Now, please don’t get me wrong, American VI is a fantastic album, and one of the highlights of 2010 for me. I can’t knock this album on any level, but there’s no use trying to hide the fact that it’s an album for a certain kind of Johnny Cash fan, which is what I would consider myself. I’ll explain.
There is this company called Bear Family out in Germany who, for folks like me, are a God-send; their main thing is to collect every Cash studio tape they can get their hands on, and come out with these amazingly comprehensive (and equally expensive) box sets of everything Johnny Cash recorded in a certain time period. Are you the kind of person who would purchase such a set and revel in the lost studio recordings that never made it onto the properly planned albums, just because it’s Johnny Cash singing a song you hadn’t heard him sing yet?
If so, congratulations! You owe it to yourself and your creepy obsession with The Man In Black to buy American VI, so go do it.
For the rest of you weirdos, I’ll explain what there is to like about the album, and I’ll try my best to empathize with those of you who aren’t totally into everything Johnny Cash ever did as best I can, and tell you what you might NOT like about the album.
As you turn the album on and the acoustic guitars gently weep out some sad minor chords, you may be struck with a sort of sense that you have heard this before, and indeed, as soon as the 2/4 stomp comes in (complete with chain rattling foley!), you realize that “Ain’t No Grave” is basically the same structure and mood as the single off his previous album, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” (only thankfully without the modern pop stars and celebrities goofing up the thing with their stupid mugs). Not only do those songs sound pretty close, but you may notice the video, a smattering of old archival videos and photographs, seems pretty similar to the video for “Hurt“, only without the emotional appeal and the subtle story being told by the mix of old imagery with new.
That video and song pretty much represents what you might not like about this album. It’s less of a cohesive story or collection of songs meant to convey Cash’s emotional state, but really more of a collection of stuff put together in such a way as to pass the requisite time and give people who want to hear Cash a little something more to hear. Now, since the man has been dead for almost 10 years, having any new content is something to be thankful for (and trust me I am thankful), but if you are expecting the same tear-inducing melancholy from any of the other American albums (especially IV and V), this album may come up a bit short at best and, at worst, derivative of Rick Rubin’s much better production work on the other albums.
Man, even WRITING that seems harsh to me, so I am going to cut that out and talk about the good stuff on this album, as there is plenty of that.
For one, the minor chord weepy guitars don’t end at “Ain’t No Grave”, in fact they continue right on into one of the stand-out tracks, “Redemption Day“, which is one of those kind of songs I probably would not like if it wasn’t Cash singing it, since it’s actually a Sheryl Crow song and is by far the “youngest” song that Cash covers in this set of songs. As it stands, it’s a very good song, and conveys very well Johnny’s life-long message of sin vs. redemption, plus the instrumentation that accompanies the song is quite appropriate, as it is for the rest of the songs, really, so you’re off the hook this time, Rubin.
Another essential part of this album is in its lone original track, which Cash penned based on the Bible verse “Corinthians 15:55“. While it’s not nearly as original as “Like The 309″, in some ways I like it better. I think the main reason is because it sounds like an authentic old Baptist hymn, and I love those songs a lot. As the verse goes, Cash begs the question “O Death, where is thy sting?” which is his old-religion way of fearlessly recognizing the end of his life, and to those of us who may have a ways to go, it’s quite an inspirational number.
Speaking of inspiration, I was happy that the formerly-Kill-Bill-exclusive “A Satisfied Mind” wound up on this release, because I quite enjoyed that song but don’t dig those kinds of films.
Something interesting about that song (originally a Porter Wagoner song) and indeed the rest of the album is that it’s actually the most “Country” of the later American albums, which is something I definitely count as a positive in this album. Although I definitely concede that Cash could make his own any song he was interested in, but his love for Country music was quite obvious, and definitely comes out in the performance.
One thing that kind of surprised me, however, was that Cash re-worked an old classic he had taken on years ago with “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream“, which serves as the penultimate song on the album. It’s a rather cute folk-ish song about the author dreaming that war had ended, and it’s quite the classic (according to my SECRET internet sources, it’s been translated to over 70 languages around the world). The interesting thing about the song’s inclusion is that, despite it being written in 1950 (possibly in response to the Korean War), Cash covered it in the early 70′s while he was protesting the Vietnam War, and indeed using it in 2002 (when he recorded it) can be seen as a response to the “War on Terror” or war in Iraq or whatever you want to call it (“Overseas Contingiency Operation”? Anyone?), and indeed, when the album came out in 2010 and even as I write this, that war is STILL going on, and the song takes on a new meaning and urgency with every moment that passes. Just think, if the war had ended, it’s possible that song might not have been included on the album, which would be a shame because it’s such a beautiful song.
Speaking of, the album ends with a song that is equal parts beautiful and mystifying. “Aloha Oe“, also known as “The only song from Hawaii that anyone knows”, finishes out the album in a sweet but rather puzzling way. It’s kind of interesting, when one looks at “We’ll Meet Again” or “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now“, the closing numbers on the previous American albums, both songs are eloquent and meaningful in their own little ways, but then you get to the final Final album and Cash sends himself off as if he was going home from a cruise or something. In a way, it almost seems fitting, especially when one considers that he spent most of his later years in a home in Jamaica, and thus was rather used to island living by that point, but it’s still something I’m trying to wrap my head around.
I guess, despite how seriously one can take life, it’s almost never worth it to do so. Indeed, as seriously as someone can take Johnny Cash, some people (myself included) should more fully realize that the man was an entertainer, and despite being a fantastic American hero, was really just a guy who really loved songs. Why should we be all morose when thinking about Johnny Cash, just because he’s gone? His music is still here, and will always be here, and we should be thankful to everyone involved that it happened that way.
For that reason and more, American VI is a fantastic album and you should definitely pick it up. It may not be a Bear Family Box Set’s worth of lost treasures, but at least it wasn’t lost.
*Apparently, NME thinks so; they voted it the number 1 best music video of all time. Not too bad!
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