American V: A Hundred Highways
ohnny Cash's death in 2003 was a potent example of the exploitative and corrupt nature of the music industry. It wasn't the media blitz; that was perfectly suitable, particularly since the brief time span between June Carter Cash's death and her husband's made for a great story.
It began when artists, whose names need not be mentioned, began citing Cash as an influence when they never had before, dropping his name as a promotional tool rather than as a token of appreciation. This was followed by footage of him appearing in a certain product's commercials, and it was supported by a slew of commemorative crap shot out well after the guy had passed.
But the most outlandish of all was Walk the Line: a glitzy, overdone Hollywood cash cow that retained little of the artistic integrity and willful defiance of the film's subject. The coffin was sealed for me, when I heard someone listening to the Joaquin Phoenix-sung versions of Cash's tunes and, wait for it, they claimed that they were better than the originals.
So when it was announced that Rick Rubin would be releasing American V: A Hundred Highways, it certainly prompted a knee-jerk reaction from die-hards who have already had to deal with enough tarnishing of their idol's image.
Not to mention the fact that it will stand in the shadow of American IV: The Man Comes Around, the highest-selling Cash album since At San Quentin nearly thirty-five years earlier. Of course American IV's recognition was indubitably linked to Mark Romanek's video for Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," which showed Cash old and torn, shakily spilling glasses of wine, his worn face gazing out at the sun and pouring down onto a lacquered piano, interspersed with archival footage and beautiful shots of The House of Cash, the singer's museum. Mixed with the imminence of Cash and his wife's deaths, the whole experience became a grand, turbulent portrayal of a dying American icon.
But American IV was not as great an album as some would care to believe. For every song that Cash transforms into bloody, hymnal reinterpretations, there is a clumsy, shoddy cover of a tired pop standard. There was the corny remake of The Beatles' "In My Life" and the all-too-obvious "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." He did make a Sting song ten times what it originally was, and The Eagles' "Desperado" into a teary-eyed saga, though. The truth of the matter? American IV has some of the saddest and best material that Cash ever made, but has some shockingly bland selections, which deter the listener from really letting the end-of-the-road feel of the album's highlights sink in.
Taken together, the surrounding context makes the astonishing quality and emotive dynamism of American V: A Hundred Highways that much more enthralling—the album that should be the man's closing statement—the grand eulogy that I had hoped for. The brilliance of American V is how it functions as both a coda and a summation of Cash's career. The stench of death is strewn all over every creaky sound and vibration, but it also contains every aspect of Cash. It wasn't as if the guy was all about apocalyptic grandiosities and somber, black folk. He was also infinitely charming and charismatic, the two qualities that made him equal parts common man and super-man, both of which were notably absent from American IV.
In that respect, American V doesn't treat death, its clearest and most frequent theme, as completely somber, specifically in the spoken-word section of "A Legend in My Own Time." Like the black bird silhouettes of the "Hurt" video, there is sunlight in the backdrop—a glimmer of hope on the horizon. And it is precisely that which makes Cash's passing more emotionally resonant.
A distinguishable factor are the song choices, on the whole far more consistent and unique than on any of the other American albums. On his last album, Cash chose to cover Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," a paltry and elementary piece in the artist's catalog. "On the Evening Train" is a supremely rarer alternative, and it speaks in a way that "Lonesome" didn't, especially when Cash sings, "I pray that God / Will give me courage to carry on 'til we meet again," one of the many allusions to his then-deceased wife. There are also the two mammoth openers: the cover of Larry Gatlin's "Help Me" and the traditional "God's Gonna Cut You Down," a storming response to the introduction, which acts as a bleary, aching plea for comfort.
Rick Rubin's bare-bones production, which became more pronounced and simultaneously more subtle as the American series progressed, reaches a creative apex on American V. Whether it's the perfectly-utilized string arrangements, the pounding percussion and handclaps of "God's Gonna Cut You Down," or the thundering, sudden piano stabs on the original "I Came to Believe," every move that Rubin makes is flawless. It's no wonder as to why it took him so long to do post-production: nothing feels overdone, and nothing needs subtraction, it's exactly as it should be.
The best example of the power of American V arrives in Cash's version of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind." The original was a hokey toss-off that, with its breezy guitar, syrupy strings, and faux-suave voice, was a sappy slab of AOR sub-mediocrity. But Cash rips the original to shreds, making it sound leagues more suspenseful and breathtaking than Lightfoot ever could have. Using a distant organ to accentuate the spare acoustic arrangement and intermittent, sonorous piano chords, Cash actually chokes on his words when he sings, "You won't read that book again / Because the end is just too hard to take." It's difficult not to burst into tears when this occurs, primarily when Rubin nods to Romanek for inspiration and puts in a dusty guitar figure before the piano drops harder, as Cash continues to wail.
It could be the soundtrack to death, love, pain, strength, joy, suffering, courage, despair, and faith all at the same time. It’s a mystery as to how Rubin and Cash may or may not have planned this series. But it’s easy to see how Rubin conceived it after Cash’s death. The series now functions as the last and grandest tale in Johnny Cash's career: a retrospective on old age and death that is singular in its ties to the country and the traditions which inspired the artist so much.