Way better than Walk the Line
Johnny Cash spent something like fifty years singing wrenchingly sad death-meditations, and his voice was wise and heavy and gnarled from jump. He was never, ever a fresh-faced kid, and his thick, deep rumble is one of the greatest voices in the history of American music. I’m pretty sure that’s why he became the one country music that even people who hate country love. Back in his Live at Folsom Prison heyday, he could be funny and righteous and fiery and powerfully alive, but even then he was dropping gems like “The Long Black Veil,” hauntingly stark devil-chasing-me shit. So I hope I’m not utterly herbing myself when I say that my favorite Cash album is American IV: The Man Comes Around, the one he recorded and released just before he died. Cash’s Rick Rubin collaborations started out awkward and never quite shook the faint whiff of exploitation, but it was amazing to hear their progress. When Rubin rescued Cash from Nashville hell, he knew that he had a voice that could lend bottomless gravity to anything it sang, even if it was a doofy-ass song that Glen Danzig wrote or a Soundgarden cover or whatever. When Rubin and Cash began collaborating in the mid-90s, there was a whole lot of stuff like that, lost artifacts of pop-culture past being trotted out as retro-cool, like when Tony Bennett showed up to the MTV Awards in a Dr. Seuss hat. And so the first couple of American albums had some horrible nudge-wink jokes, like the fake hillbilly whoops on “Tennessee Stud” that make my skin crawl every time.
By the time Cash made American IV, though, Rubin had figured out that Cash’s alt-rock covers could sometimes come off like publicity stunts and that he might have to work a bit harder to figure out which ones might work, just like he should only bring in collaborators who would complement Cash’s dusky moan instead of overwhelming it. And Rubin isn’t exactly a Midas-touch producer (witness the Red Hot Chili Peppers), but he knows his way around a slow, wispy arrangement. The mythic strum of American IV is pretty much completely removed from country music, and it gave Cash the room he needed to play his wounded-prophet role to perfection. What really gets me about the album, though, is the tragic and poetic resonance it took in the context of Cash’s death a few months later. It was just perfectly sad: June Carter Cash dies first, and then Johnny goes a few months later. I don’t know if it’s actually true, but the album certainly sounds like Cash knew he was about to die, that the album was about impending death. The album closes with “Streets of Laredo” and “We’ll Meet Again,” and they both just suck my breath out. I keep picturing Johnny playing “We’ll Meet Again” for June on her deathbed, even though that’s impossible since his hands were way too old for him to play guitar anyway. The album would be great even without its context, but the baggage is what makes it amazing.
American IV is one of my top forty or so favorite albums of all time, so I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the news that we’d be getting another album of Rubin collabos. The artist’s-death cottage-industry is nothing new; ask Tupac. And Cash’s estate has been flooding the market with best-ofs and box sets and unreleased material since his death, but I’m not especially mad at that; he was, after all, a national treasure, and that’s just what you do when a national treasure dies. But American IV had such an air of finality that I didn’t want anyone fucking with it. The book was closed, and they should just walk away. But American V: A Hundred Highways, which drops on the fourth of July, is nearly as great as American IV. It’s just as suffused with death and grief and regret as its predecessor, and it’s just as sad and gorgeous. Cash recorded it in the months between June’s death and his own, and he did away with all the alt-rock covers and marquee-name guests. There’s a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On (Up the Road),” but the album mostly sticks with traditionals and Cash originals. And they’re all about dying, of course. Cash’s voice is still tough and sinewy, but you can hear the age in it for the first time, the breath intakes and soft quivers. Rubin keeps all the arrangements from getting within Cash’s way except when he needs them to beef things up, like the ominous Angels of Light drum-stomp on the apocalyptic gospel burner “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” And there’s a lot of stuff about not wanting to go yet: “Oh Lord, help me walk another mile.” Three songs are addressed to God, and a lot of the others are love songs; everything is just crushingly, unbearably sad. The song that sticks with me the most is “On the Evening Train,” a ballad about a man watching his wife’s coffin leaving on a train: “I pray that God will give me courage to carry on till we meet again / It’s hard to know she’s gone forever / They’re carrying her home on the evening train.” Some of the other songs are about personal failures, the sort of stuff that I can imagine just tearing you up when you know your time is short. It’s summer, and it’s a lot more fun to listen to Lily Allen and Field Mob and Brightblack Morning Light than some excoriating edge-of-mortality stuff like this. American V is one of the most depressing albums I’ve ever heard, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s not ready to be depressed. But if you’re worried that it’s a crass money-grab, stop worrying. Still, don’t buy it until July 5th. This is not barbecue material.
Voice feature: Tom Smucker on the death of Johnny Cash