American V: A Hundred Highways

Johnny Cash

Lost Highway, 2006

http://www.johnnycash.com

REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/12/2014

After American IV, Cash did not waste any time cutting material for a new album, taking to the studio to work on some 50 songs before he ran out of time.  The material is often slower and more contemplative, leading to a much more poignant release as a posthumous album after Cash’s death in 2003.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The specter of death pervades American V. From the very first slow and methodical notes of the spiritual “Help Me,” which opens the album, to the final "I'm Free From The Chain Gang Now," a macabre shadow of the grim reaper is everywhere. Take for example “Like The 309,” which is reportedly the last song Cash wrote. In it, Cash sings freely, even flippantly, about progressing into death. It’s odd that with the first chord strike of the song he sings “It should be a while before I see Dr. Death.” Big talk from a dead man.  “Love’s Been Good To Me” and “A Legend In My Time” also have the melancholy air of a man reflecting on his life gone by. 

Despite the deathly overtones, the album is a mostly positive experience with hopeful lyrics in Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On Up The Road” and “Four Strong Winds.” But two are profoundly sad. First, Gordon Lightfoot’s classic “If You Could Read My Mind” is depressing in that Cash’s asthmatic voice is painfully strained.  He sounds as if he is gasping for air at each phrase. Cash’s biographer, Robert Hilburn, noted that by the end of his recording career, studio engineers would piece together phrases from different takes to make a whole song, since Cash could rarely sing through an entire piece at a time. On this track, the necessity of that approach is blatant. Meanwhile, Hank Williams’ “On the Evening Train” is a tearjerker if there ever was one, especially if the listener has children.

As posthumous albums go, American V is impressively cohesive. The reflection and realization of mortality are evident in nearly every track, but Johnny Cash singing from the grave is a treat for the loyal fan.

Rating: B

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