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Life After Death


Johnny Cash: American V: A Hundred Highways

Lost Highway, 2006

Rating: 3.5


Posted: July 25, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Three years after his death, Johnny Cash is on his way to becoming the Tupac Shakur of country music. His private stash has already yielded Personal File, a double album of recordings made back in the 1970s, which feature Cash singing and playing alone, prefacing story-songs and covers with chatty introductions as if he were practicing for an episode of VH1's Storytellers. And now his creatively fertile and financially lucrative collaboration with producer Rick Rubin has yielded a fifth entry in the pair's popular "American" series, and there are whispers that there was enough material for a sixth disc. Surely it won't be long until the singer's unfinished demos, answering machine messages and grocery lists are set to music, perpetuating an after-death franchise similar to that of Mr. Shakur, whose post-mortal catalog eclipses (in quantity if not quality) the records he made when he was alive.

Okay, we probably needn't worry. Rubin loves his late friend too much to set his every taped utterance to sub-par backing tracks just to ensure the "American" series drifts into the double digits. But in a way, that reverence keeps American V: A Hundred Highways from soaring. Cash laid down the preliminary tracks after the death of his wife, June Carter Cash, in order to keep busy -- so of course the songs are bound to be concerned (one might even say obsessed) with the idea of shuffling off this mortal coil. Sure enough, selections like "I'm Free of the Chain Gang Now," the traditional number "God's Gonna Cut You Down," Hank Williams' "On the Evening Train" and Cash's own "Like the 309" (reportedly the last song he ever wrote) suggest that the idea of shuffling off this mortal coil was heavy on the singer's mind.

Rubin fleshes out these tracks with sparse, somber and deferential arrangements, with Cash's frail voice front and center. The intent is clear: These are meditations on the end of life, and thus, the reasoning goes, they deserve serious treatment. Which would be just fine except for two things: One, Rubin's instinctual decision to progressively pare the "American" songs to their skeletons has become so ingrained that it's almost a cliché -- it's what we've come to expect. (When Terry Gross, host of National Public Radio's Fresh Air, interviewed Neil Diamond last year about his Rubin-produced album 12 Songs, she took it as a given that Rubin wanted to strip things down, as if that's his sole method of dealing with singer-songwriters of a certain age.)

Two, the atmosphere that results isn't so much respectful as funereal. No one expects an album full of songs about death to be fun, but overall this set feels more ponderous than it should. Halfway through, the listener can't help feeling a little like a fidgety child at a grown-up's wake. No one wants to feel like listening to a Johnny Cash album is a chore done out of respect for the dead, either.

There are affecting moments here, of course -- how could there not be? At his rebellious peak, you almost believed the defiant, gravelly Cash might beat Death in a fight. You'd have to be made of granite not to be moved by Cash's weathered husk of a voice trudging through a declaration of faith like "I Came to Believe" or a folk song like "Four Strong Winds." And it is intriguing to hear how, without a hint of calculation, he wrings unintended meaning from melancholy readings of Gordon Lightfoot's too-often-overlooked "If You Could Read My Mind" and Bruce Springsteen's "Further On Up the Road." The latter, from Springsteen's decidedly unsubtle The Rising, packs its share of trite death imagery, yet Cash manages to invest it with, if not insight, then at least a street-level profundity.

Those moments of clarity are more than good-enough reasons to give A Hundred Highways a good listen. And you certainly want to, knowing that there won't be any more new works from this iconic American singer and songwriter coming down the pike. (Dusted-off old works, maybe, but no more new ones.) And yet the album's sepulchral tone makes sitting through the whole thing, start to finish, feel a bit like a homework assignment. If indeed there are more Cash albums in the pipeline, one hopes their arrangements won't be quite as foreboding.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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