Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Ain't No Grave is the last ever release in the American Recordings series, and came out at the weekend ahead of Johnny Cash's 78th birthday on Friday.
It was recorded during the same sessions that brought American V: A Hundred Highways, just after the recording of the stellar American IV: The Man Comes Around. Obviously, it doesn't reach the heights of the third or fourth instalments of the Rick Rubin era, but it is just as good as number five.
There aren't any of those inspired covers such as 'Hurt' or 'Solitary Man', but the entire contents of this album speak for themselves. All the songs are understated in a way only Johnny Cash could make them. The title track, and opener, 'Ain't No Grave' is a traditional tune, and features the Avett Brothers as backing musicians. It's a solemn tune, and a fine opener.
Sheryl Crow's 'Redemption Day' is one of the more contemporary songs on the album, and is a fine choice. However, it is fellow veteran country-singer Kris Kristofferson's 'For the Good Times' that is the album's highpoint. It's a gorgeous pop song, which had been earlier covered by Elvis, but I think the man in black's version may be the best I've heard it. The lyrics are added so much weight given Cash's own condition - how his wife June Carter died just months before him in 2003.
At the moment it's the last ever song Cash wrote (there may be others released in future, you know what the marketing machine is like), but 'First Corinthians 15:55' is up there with many of his later-years self-penned tracks. It's better than 'I Came to Believe' from American V, but not as good as 'Like the 309' from the same sessions. Cash was very religious, and this is another grand addition to his legacy.
Johnny Cash's take on Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes' 'A Satisfied Mind' originally appeared on the Kill Bill 2 soundtrack, but is more than worthy of inclusion here, as it joins a fantastic canon of cover versions of the song - alongside The Byrds, Glen Campbell, Jeff Buckley, Lucinda Williams, Daniel O'Donnell, and even Roseanne Cash.
'I Don't Hurt Anymore' is a perfect post-breakup song, and when Cash sings "No use to deny I wanted to die / The day you said we were through / But now that I find you're out of my mind / I can't believe that it's true" you know he means it.
'Cool Water' is the only real low point on the album, as it never really gets going. I also think that 'Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream' should have been the closing song rather than 'Aloha Oe', as it would be a fantastic finale to the American Recordings series.
Many people may dismiss this album as mere moneymaking (like how Tupac has so much posthumous material), but that would be an injustice. At the time they were recorded, these songs were always meant to be heard, and thus it's a fine end to a wonderful series. If you have the rest of the latter-day Cash albums in your collection, this is a must-have.