American VI: Ain't No Grave
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2010, Volume 17, #3
Written by John Metzger
Thu March 25, 2010, 06:30 AM CDT
It would be understandable if fans were to greet American VI: Ainít No Grave with a certain degree of skepticism. After all, the set not only is the sixth installment in a series of releases that were sculpted by Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash, but it also is the second outing to be issued in the wake of Cashís death. The law of diminishing returns indicates that there just canít be very much quality material left in the vaults, and the blatant posthumous inclusion of rising stars Scott and Seth Avett further clouds the proceedings, at least on a superficial level.
Beginning with American Recordings in 1994, Cash began to prepare rigorously for his inevitable demise, and he increasingly was driven to make music. The works that Cash produced during his final decade clearly demonstrate that he desired not only to reclaim his legacy but also to extend it. Fighting against his weakening body, he kept an engineer on call so that he could settle into the recording studio whenever he was able to muster his strength.
Arguably, the albums that resulted from these sessions, particularly the later ones, were the culminations of Rubinís vision as much, if not more than, they were Cashís. Rubin selected the songs, hired the musicians, and devised the arrangements for the material. Nevertheless, Cash believed in Rubin, and he trusted that the outcomes wouldnít be spoiled by the process. Not everything that Cash and Rubin created was an unmitigated success, but taken in full, it is indisputable that the duo accomplished their goal rather magnificently.
It is quite fascinating that Cash and Rubin were able to give each chapter of the American Recordings series its own unique flavor. Where American V: A Hundred Highways was stalked by death, American VI: Ainít No Grave pushes aside the darkness in order to explore broader spiritual themes. Much of the endeavor is informed by Cashís Christian outlook, and, at times, the music is so sparse that it could be considered an expansion of the homegrown gospel recordings that were compiled for Personal File. I Corinthians 15:55, the only song on American VI: Ainít No Grave that was penned by Cash, lies at the heart of the outing. With a regal accompaniment of cello and harpsichord, it is a modern hymn that has been recast as a country waltz.
Time and again throughout American VI: Ainít No Grave, Cash tackles songs that project his moral views and ponder the notion of a world that exists beyond the living. Each selection is transformed into a meditation upon life, death, love, and hate as well as all of their inherent hopes and regrets. Even when a song doesnít necessarily speak to the subject at hand, Cashís emphatic delivery bends it into shape. I Donít Hurt Anymore, for example, might be about the end of a relationship. In Cashís hands, however, it feels like an acceptance of deathís release as he joins his wife June Carter on the other side.
Musically, American VI: Ainít No Grave is divided into halves. The opening section features fuller arrangements, while the latter portion treads more gently. A supernatural aura hovers over the title track, lending it a sense of fierce determination that mirrors Cashís desire to rise from the ashes. The rest of the songs, however, are marked by their unobtrusive accompaniments. Led by guitarist Smokey Hormel and longtime Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, the backing band is employed primarily to establish the mood. Sometimes the outfit treads so lightly that it sounds more fragile than Cash. By subtly framing his voice, the ensemble magnifies the importance of the lyrics that he sings. Itís a neat trick, too, because, in a believable fashion, it makes it seem as if Cash is stronger than he actually is. In fact, by the time he slips into Aloha Oe, Cash finds contentment, and the end result is that his final farewell feels temporary rather than permanent.
Of Further Interest...
American VI: Ain't No Grave is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2010 The Music Box