“Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?” Johnny Cash intones at the start of “I Corinthians 15:55.” The tune, among the last Cash ever wrote, is lovely and reflective, and unfolds like a dreamy waltz between old lovers in a dusty front parlor.
Unsurprisingly, death and resignation are overriding themes of "American VI: Ain’t No Grave," the final installment of Cash’s remarkable late-career collaboration with producer Rick Rubin. Although Cash at the time was seriously ill, nearly blind, and broken over the recent death of June Carter Cash, "American VI" is anything but a depressing downer of an album. Although its subjects are serious, and its language steeped in the biblical, Cash’s voice, while worn to an old, scratchy ghost of a once effortless baritone, is determined and mostly lacks the almost unbearable-to-hear weakness that made "American V: A Hundred Highways" such a difficult, if not-to-be-missed journey.
Interestingly, the songs on these two albums were mostly recorded during the same four-month stretch that in which June Carter Cash and then Cash himself died. It was a remarkable final outpouring, apparently done to honor one of June Carter Cash’s final requests—that Johnny keep on working. And while he was never shy about expressing his religious faith, the evidence here suggests that Cash not only relied on it evermore during these months, but also, true to his Christian beliefs, embraced the finality of it all.
Accompanied by a small core of musicians that mark the American series (typically, at this time, recorded separately and mixed in later), the traditional “Ain’t No Grave” sets the tone as something defiant, yet also eerie and haunted. Cash’s cracked voice calls out from a kind of acoustic crypt as a fingerpicked banjo, slide guitar, and mocking organ seem to defy his defiance, while foot stomps suggests the devil’s relentless knock, or perhaps earth being shoveled on a coffin lid. Things turn more gentle with a slow-churning version of Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day,” and Cash’s lovely take on Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times.” “Lay your head on my shoulder,” he sings in a voice that, while lacking sentimentality, is nonetheless capable of breaking your heart. Side Two doesn’t sustain quite this intensity, and it seems that Rubin elected to sequence the tunes into a peaceful slow fade. A pair of numbers, “Satisfied Mind” and Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water” feature Cash with only acoustic guitars; “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” is a gentle anti-war lullaby, and “Aloha Oe” allows the man in black to wave goodbye with a wistful “until we meet again.”
The sound of the LP is remarkably fine and consistent given the stitched-together nature of Rubin’s loving effort. And as with the American series in general, there is an intimacy here that perfectly serves the music. The soundstage is life-size and very open; instruments have excellent detail, body, and texture—at times raw, at others gentle, as the mood requires, and Cash’s vocals are quite natural sounding— sonically unvarnished, emotionally naked.