The looming specter of death darkens every corner of American V: A Hundred Highways. You can hear it in Johnny Cash’s wizened, closely-miked baritone, standing in shocking contrast with the vital vocals that pepper the recently released collection Personal File. It’s nothing short of an aural last will and testament, expertly produced by Cash’s steadfast guiding hand Rick Rubin; American V is shot through with genuine soul and is, at times, surprisingly moving. Hearing Cash’s voice splinter midway through a poignant reading of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” can induce a lump in the throat; this is a starkly rendered portrait of an artist quite literally knocking on heaven’s door, fighting against his ailing body to complete his work on Earth.
Culling songs from Cash’s own supply (“Like The 309” is presented here as the last song he wrote before his death in 2003) as well as interpreting works by a diverse selection of songwriters (Lightfoot, Bruce Springsteen, Hank Williams, Rod McKuen), American V is an inescapably introspective album. Even if Cash were still with us, it would remain a somber, fitfully joyous record, preoccupied with love, loss, and death, like so much of Cash’s justifiably celebrated catalog. Thankfully, Rubin elected to hold back this latest in the American series to allow Walk the Line mania to subside; it places the songs in their proper context, to be appreciated as part of the whole, rather than seen as a quick cash-in.
It’s rumored that Rubin has enough material to warrant a sixth volume in the series, having been quoted as saying what remains is more upbeat, but releasing another album would feel a little gauche, given the powerful sense of closure this disc provides. One of the drawbacks of Rubin biding his time is that the producer was obviously forced to complete American V: A Hundred Highways without Cash; relying upon a rock-solid contingent of session musicians to further flesh out Cash’s initial sketches, Rubin has fashioned a solemn masterpiece of shadows, tinged with regret and sadness. It’s one of the year’s most reflective releases and one that will be counted among its best.