I had a weird experience yesterday. For starters, I bought the first full price album I’ve bought in, well years. I then took the album home, popped it in my CD player, hit play.. And then paused. For the first time ever, I just sat there, in perfect silence, doing nothing but staring into blank air and listening through an entire album without so much as even moving a muscle. That is if we disregard the goosebumps on my arms as being a form of involuntary muscle movement.
The album in question was Johnny Cash’s last studio album, American VI: Ain’t No Grave and it was not only, quite honestly, one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long, long time, it was also one of the more emotionally overpowering ones.
Let it be said from the get-go, America VI: Ain’t No Grave has but one theme, and that theme is death! The album is quite obviously intended to be the final words of a dying man who has come to not only accept his destiny but look forward to the road ahead. Which makes it a somber work of heart-breaking beauty.
America VI is, technically and music wise, a very simple production. The musical backdrop is at an absolute minimum here, sometimes featuring only Cash and a guitar, a bit of drumming here and there, a few backing instruments. Cash himself sounds more frail than ever as could be expected from a man in the last few months of his life. His voice breaks visibly at times to a point where it’s almost unbearably sad to listen to, yet you can’t help but feel impressed with the effort that must have been put into this final statement.
And what a statement! While others albums in the series have centered around the issue of death and the sadness of loss, American VI embraces death and, borrowing a few words from Bob Dylan, tells us that “death is not the end.” It expresses not so much a fear of death as a longing and a curiosity. Cash’s message becomes pretty clear: Death is but a transition and nothing to be scared of, and nothing to bed sad about:
On the opening title track, which music wise sounds more than a funeral march than anything else, Cash tells us that “Ain’t no grave can hold my body down” as if to say that his memory (as that of any good man) will live on long past his bones. On an absolute beautiful cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times”, which had even this diehard metalhead blinking a few times on account of something apparently getting stuck in his eyes, Cash tells us not to mourn the loss of our loved ones but instead rejoice in the time that we have spent with them and the memories that we will forever cherish. Other tracks are spent contemplating the things to come and coming to grips with the situation before the album eventually ends in the ever traditional Hawaiian hello/goodbye “Aloha Oe” – with the double meaning of the word Aloha obviously carrying a blindingly obvious symbolism here.
The result is an album which leaves you feeling in a strange state between being borderline revolted and, at the same time, being in awe. Of being overwhelmed by the sadness of the theme or comforted by the message. It’s really quite impressive how many different facets and angles can be put into such a seemingly simple production. And that’s not even counting personal perceptions. While I, being young and still having quite a lust for life and fear of death, get a certain sad, scary vibe from the album, I imagine the experience would be totally different for someone much older and wiser on life than I am. Perhaps even soothing for someone who like Cash (at the time of recording) is at the end of his life.
Having listened to the album, and the albums before, a lot can be said about the genius of Johnny Cash. But this, being a posthumous album, a lot, too, should be said about the genius of the album’s producer, Rick Rubin. Obviously, Rick Rubin is the man to blame for relaunching Cash’s career, rebranding him and creating the phenomenal and hugely successful American Recording sessions of which this current release marks the end. That in itself is an impressive feat. Add to that the fact that Rubin singlehandedly put the last two albums in the series together following Cash’s death and you get to realize that the feel and the message on the albums are not only that of Cash, but that of Rubin as well, who was trusted with the not so easy feat of writing the last two chapters in Cash’s life and career after the man largely responsible for the songs featured on the works had passed. A tough job by any stretch of the imagination, but one that he manages quite well as the British would say. (Or very well as the rest of us would say.)
Some will undoubtedly argue that releasing another posthumous album is nothing but an attempt to exploit a franchise and squeeze a few more pennies out of the Cash name.. But I beg to differ. The sixth installment offers a valid end to the series. Where American V dealt very much with the pain of death and the loss of the loss of the life, American VI shows Cash coming to terms with his own mortality and accept that the end is near. Not only that, it actually shows him embracing this change and looking forward to the inevitable. So while American V would have ended the series on a much more serious and sad note, American VI ends it on in a somewhat lighter and more justified note.. And for that, I am grateful. Thank you, Rick Rubin! .. And if there is any justice in the world, please let this be the final original material released in Cash’s name. Let this be a fitting epitaph to an impressive life in music!
.. And happy 78th birthday, Johnny!