JOHNNY LIVES: Johnny Cash's posthumous Personal File has been in stores for a couple months now, and American V: A Hundred Highways comes out July 4 (and is currently streaming for free over at MySpace). The latter was completed after Cash's death, and it's an open question how much of it is Cash's vision and how much is producer Rick Rubin's; I wouldn't be surprised if a few years hence they put out American V Naked, with all the Rubinean adornments excised.
If they do, I'll probably buy that one too. I'm a fan.
And as a fan -- worse yet, a fan with a blog -- it's my duty to nitpick the comments of other fans. So here's David Cantwell, writing in the July-August No Depression:
American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around continued the variety [of American Recordings and Unchained], albeit with increasingly formulaic results, while reinforcing the singular focus upon the gothic Cash with Trent Reznor's "Hurt" (IV) and Will Oldham's "I See A Darkness" (III). There were innumerable comparisons of Cash to gangsta rappers, and somewhere along the way, Murder became inaccurately elevated onto equal footing with Love and God in the cataloguing of the Cash sensibility.
I once wrote an article that compared Cash to gangsta rappers myself, though I'm pretty sure I did it before he reinvented himself for the alternative audience. (I was quoting "Cocaine Blues," and making a point about the folly of confusing a singer with the characters he plays in his songs.) I agree with Cantwell about the way Cash is mistaken in some quarters for a musical Grim Reaper, but I have to stand up for Solitary Man, one of the best albums in his catalog. It may have established the recent trend of Cash Albums About Death, but because it got there first it was anything but formulaic. It's essentially a concept album about the singer's impending exit from the world, and its tone is established on the cover: The musician stands alone in a hallway, eyes cast downwards, waiting.
The first track on the CD is a cover of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down." When Petty sang "You can stand me up at the gates of Hell/But I won't back down," it was a metaphor, but when Cash sings it you get the impression he might mean it literally. The whole disc continues in that vein, and there isn't a single misstep along the way. The Man Comes Around, by contrast, feels like a series of outtakes from the album that preceded it; some of it's great, but some should have stayed in the vaults. (A Sting cover? Good Lord, why?) IV got a lot more attention than III, thanks to Cash's powerful cover of "Hurt" (and Mark Romanek's powerful video for the song), but it was the earlier album that deserved the acclaim. IV was formulaic. III wasn't.
And V? Terrific stuff. The high point is the old gospel song "God's Gonna Cut You Down," a.k.a. "Run On for a Long Time." At least three stars have recorded this one in recent years, and if Cash's performance isn't quite as good as the version the Blind Boys of Alabama did a few albums back, it still kicks Moby's ass.