Coming a few days before what would have been his 78th birthday, American VI: Ain’t No Grave attempts to restyle the end of Johnny Cash’s career on a somewhat uplifting note, favoring simple spiritual affirmations, rendered in a somber but not bleak style. And though it remains to be seen whether The Man Comes Around, with its less forcefully cohesive tone and epithetic “Hurt” music video, was the best way for Cash to go out, Ain’t No Grave is most likely the last new material we’ll see from him.
Rubin shaped Cash’s two posthumous albums, this and 2006’s A Hundred Highways, from the over 50 songs produced in his last recording sessions. The fact, then, that this becomes the de facto “death record,” loaded with crawling, black-shrouded dirges, feels something like puppetry after the fact. It may be a cap for the man’s legacy, but it’s one applied by someone else, and thus can’t help but feel a little false. And as much as the liner notes stress the importance this session had in granting the singer purpose in his last days, it’s depressing to hear him go out on this note, drained of all energy and fight.
Yet this is a stance Ain’t No Grave can’t help but cop, the songs structured to suggest that Cash left this earth with an easy mind. The album starts off with the title cut, which fleshes out his failing voice with far fuller production than has been common on these American albums, and ends with the traditional “Aloha Oe,” clearly placed there to exploit the dual nature of the word. Along the way, there are hints at the things that made Cash great throughout his career, but none of the usual energy that supported them.
But a rejuvenated Cash is obviously too much to ask for. And forgetting these problems, there’s not much else to find fault with on Ain’t No Grave, which amounts to a touching and often very sad sendoff. Especially important are the song choices, which range more toward the obscure and old-fashioned than the more marketable choices used on earlier incarnations. While the earlier albums had the strange pleasure of seeing Cash cover popular hits, the folk and country choices suit him in an easy, comfortable way.
It can therefore be said that the angle imposed here is a double-edged sword, granting a too-strict formula for these songs to occupy, but also granting a greater measure of artistic freedom. If anything, the figure Cash presents here, a ghost of his former self, cobbling together his last artistic statement, only serves as a reminder of how great he once was.