I've been waiting for this album for a couple of years at least, and then all of a sudden, out it pops, reviewed and released and in the shops before I had time to take a breath and utter “is this really the long-promised Johnny Cash album of songs recorded after June Carter died?”
Maybe it's due to the ubiquity of Cash this year. I mean, we've not only had Walk the Line, but the accompanying TV programmes and the seeming hundreds of tie-in (or should that be Cash-in?) compilations that have flooded the market. It would be a shame if this was seem by people as just another one of these. It's not. It's the definitive last statement from one of America's greatest ever singer songwriters.
And what a statement. I had feared that it would be a lazily assembled collection of pieced-together recordings, but no. It's beautiful, brilliant and elegiac. What? Well, that's how a friend described it the other day. I've since looked it up and this is what it means:
Elegiac: “Of, relating to, or involving elegy or mourning or expressing sorrow for that which is irrecoverably past” (dictionary.com)
Well, that's about right, isn't it? After all, this is an album infused with sadness. The songs that Cash and Rick Rubin selected (most of which weren't his own) throughout the American Recordings series were all so appropriate for him, and these are no exception. None of these songs were written for a man in his position, but, given his circumstances they take on a new meaning – the "heartaches and pain" of Legend in My Time, the "good times are gone" of Four Strong Winds, and the helpless prayers to God that are Help Me and Came to Believe.
Rose of My Heart – unambiguous in who Cash could be singing about – seems, given the circumstances, desperately sad as we imagine Johnny sitting in the studio, singing about his dear, departed wife. And despite his claim that “it should be while till I see Doctor Death” (on Like the 309) he also didn't have much longer to go till be went to join his beloved.
But there's also hope. Further on Up the Road seems to suggest that he's looking forward to meeting June "one sunny morning", Love's Been Good To Me is a bittersweet homecoming, and Free From the Chain Gang Now – well, you can see what that might mean. I know care has gone into selecting the tracklisting for this album, so even though it's no accident, it still a wonderfully appropriate final song.
Now can I make a plea? No more raking around in studio out-takes and alternative versions to release a money-spinning American VI. The American series stands a collective masterwork, that no artist in the twilight of their career will likely ever equal. And American V is the perfect way to end it. Let's keep it that way.
Download: Johnny Cash - Help Me
Download: Johnny Cash - Love's Been Good to Me
Download: Johnny Cash - Rose of My Heart
Buy American V from Amazon.