Someone who didn't know the story of Johnny Cash, a younger person who hadn't seen the movie and didn't know his history, would be amazed that an album this bad could be made and sell copies. Cash, who recorded most of these songs shortly before his death in 2003, had almost no voice left, little energy. His range of interpreting songs, his last remaining strength, was greatly constricted.
But what he does with those last remaining talents is so gripping that I nearly drove off the road twice on the way to work, my distraction was so great. His ability to take a shallow song and inject depth into it forever, which he did increasingly over the last 20 years of his career, reach their pinnacle here. I had always found "For The Good Times" to be the first example of country music's glorification of the tawdry.
Don't look so sadBut Cash sings it from near his deathbed, with June Carter Cash unnamed but present. "Hold your warm and tender body close to mine" has an entirely different meaning when stripped of its cheap sexuality, from a husband with damaged lungs to a wife who has seen the worst of him and is herself dying. The abuse, the amphetamines and infidelities, the helpless devotion, are just beneath the surface. The song is changed forever. It is a resurrection.
I know it's over
But life goes on
And this old world
Will keep on turning
Let's just be glad
We had some time to spend together
There's no need to watch the bridges
That we're burning
Lay your head,
Upon my pillow
Hold your warm and tender body
Close to mine...
Something similar came out in their "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" duet on American IV - his stark voice, her unusual harmony in a voice weak but clear.
"Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream" is similarly redeemed. Since the 1950's it has been little more than a reality-challenged peacenik song, sung by wise-seeming 30-year-olds for 20-year-olds, an earlier "Imagine" with a worse bass-line.
I dreamed I saw a mighty roomNo longer a starry-eyed hippie anthem, but the reflection of an old man with no illusions about humanity, reciting the dream once again as a reminder.
Filled with women and men
And the paper they were signing said
They'd never fight again
And when the paper was all signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands and bowed their heads
And grateful pray'rs were prayed...
The whole album has deeply Christian humility and defiant resurrection threading it together, though less than half the songs are Christian. "Ain't No Grave" is an old Pentecostal Holiness song that runs deeper than the camp meeting and the sawdust trail, back into an Appalachian revivalism barely above the pagan, but more profound for that primitiveness.
The album has no real liner notes, just some B&W photos and the list of songs. The arrangements and accompaniment are impossibly understated, a simplicity that self-respecting studio musicians would never attempt these days. But this is the man in black, who now signs himself John R. Cash with a shaky scrawl. There's no other way to do these songs.