It's impossible to listen to Cash's new album without thinking, however vaguely, of his recent multitudinous medical reports. Though doctors are beginning to reevaluate their initial judgment that Cash is suffering from Shy-Drager syndrome, a rare, life-threatening neurological disorder, his family has repeatedly stated that his overall prognosis is serious; and the songs on American III are, for whatever reason, weighted heavily toward considerations of death and its attendant preparations.
Whether you want to or not, it's impossible to listen to Cash sing the ancient spiritual "Wayfaring Stranger" without hearing that weight; and the direst moments here, such as his cover of Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat," are positively bone-chilling. A testament from a falsely convicted prisoner just before he enters the electric chair, "The Mercy Seat" here gets the full-chested Cash delivery it always needed, a deep and powerful voice to carry words like "Into the mercy seat I climb/My head is shaved, my head is wired/And God is never far away." Go ahead: Listen to that line and don't get a chill up your back.
There are several such moments on American III, making it a darker and more introspective piece than Cash's previous collaborations with producer Rick Rubin. The album's low acoustic rendition of U2's "One" (which makes a lot more sense than you'd think, in context), the tale of the man pulled between love and fate in "I See a Darkness," and the somber family history in "Mary of the Wild Moor" are less horror-filled than possessed of an essential starkness, the sound of a man looking deeply into the mystery at the end of all our lives, the place from which none of us returns.
Don't say "grim," though; and don't say "nihilistic." The Johnny Cash on American III obviously has mortality heavy on his mind, but he's facing it, testing it, trying to give the void a name and a shape. And importantly, his performances here indicate that he remains fully possessed of life, as if living were made sweeter for his new outlook. Cash-penned songs like the brand-new "Country Trash" and "I'm Leaving Now" (on which Merle Haggard duets) are happy moments, made especially poignant by their placement alongside the bulk of the album's material.
Cash's liner notes tell us he once won a talent show as a kid by singing the country standard "That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day)," a song he reprises here. That voice, that big, powerful voice, cracks and wavers just a little on the high end of the song, which is a surprise for anyone accustomed to Cash's delivery. But in its way, it's the most perfect moment on the album. Cash is a singer. Even in our twilight moments (and Cash here states that he began American III intending it to be his last album), music sustains and carries, because it's bigger than we are. Unlike us, it's eternal. And that verity -- more than death, more than sorrow -- is what American III is really about.