I approached this new record from Johnny Cash with some skepticism. By the time these tracks were recorded, J.C. simply wasn't singing very well anymore. The songs on "Ain't No Grave" were recorded during the same sessions as the ones that appeared on 2006's American V: A Hundred Highways, which underwhelmed me.
For my money, the first Cash collaboration with Rick Rubin, 1994's American Recordings, is still, hands down, the best one (though IV had some choice moments; "Hurt" being the most obvious example. You don't need any further proof of Johnny's greatness than "Hurt," especially given how hard Nine Inch Nails sucked).
Anyway, Johnny sounds weak, the music's just not same without him on guitar (there's a certain pervasive slickness on the recent American Recordings that didn't exist on the first one), and there's nothing here that is nearly as powerful as "Hurt" or "Bridge Over Troubled Water." It's actually an understated collection of songs, but, for me, it still packed an emotional wallop in parts -- not so much for the performances but for the recurring theme of the songs: Johnny facing his own mortality.
From the first line of the record ("There ain't no grave / Can hold my body down") to the last ("Until we meet again"), Cash is coming to terms with his imminent death and, ultimately, his redemption.
In one three-song stretch, Cash goes from contemplating his fate to bravely accepting it. On Tom Paxton's "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound," he poignantly sings, "I've been wandering through this land / Just doing the best I can / Trying to find what I was meant to do / And the people that I see look as worried as can be / And it looks like they are wonderin' too." And on Porter Waggoner's "A Satisfied Mind," he sings, "When life is ending / And my time has run out / My friends and my loved ones believe there's no doubt / But there's one thing for certain / When it comes my time / I'll leave this old world with a satisfied mind." And on Hank Snow's "I Don't Hurt Anymore" . . . well, the title says it all.
The 10-song album closes with the Hawaiian standard "Aloha Oe," in which the legends sings in English and Hawaiian, "One fond embrace / Before I now depart / Until we meet again." Farewell to thee, indeed, Johnny.
Best song: The ominous title track and the aforementioned "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound."
Deja Vu: The end of a going-away party.
I'd rather listen to: The first American Recordings is still the best. For posthumous releases, you can't beat Streetcore by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros.
"Nothing Not New" is a yearlong project in which New Times editorial operations manager Jay Bennett, a 40-year-old music fan and musician, will listen only to music released in 2010. Each Monday through Friday, he will listen to one new record (no best ofs, reissues, or concert recordings) and write about it. Why? Because in the words of his editor, Martin Cizmar, he suffers from "aesthetic atrophy," a wasting away of one's ability to embrace new and different music as one ages. Read more about this all-too-common ailment here.
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