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The ethical questions surrounding this final album in the American Recordings
series are as unavoidable as they are, ultimately, peripheral. While the vocal tracks were recorded in the months just prior to Johnny Cash's passing in September 2003, the arrangements weren't undertaken until two years later. And though producer Rick Rubin had become a trusted friend, the Man in Black wasn't around to approve or disapprove, let alone guide, the final sessions. However, if the pure power of these recordings doesn't quiet the skeptics, nothing will. With Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench and slide guitar session pro Smokey Hormel on board (all three of whom appear on earlier Cash albums), along with guitarists Matt Sweeney and Johnny Polansky, the sound is stately and acoustic, but rarely staid, even as the dynamics of earlier recordings in the series are absent. Instead, the songs have a measured, elegiac intensity, the sound of musicians choosing their notes carefully and making just the right choices.
The songs Cash sings are, unsurprisingly, confessional and reflective: his mortality and his mistakes, his maker and his salvation, and the loss of his wife June and the end of his career may have weighed on his mind, but in these songs he both embodies and transcends his personal history. On "God's Gonna Cut You Down," as the musicians clap and stomp behind him, his voice cuts through the air like that same avenging hand. On the new original "Like the 309"--the last song Cash ever wrote--he cops to being short of breath, and that voice becomes a metaphor for what each of us will one day face. On Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Read My Mind," Rubin flirts with overwhelming the damp bittersweetness of Cash's phrasing in tasteful atmospherics, but the voice is implacable, hitting and finding notes one never expected he'd have the will to find. Likewise, it's hard to believe this is his first recording of Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds"; the elemental narrative seems to have been written for him. Two songs, however, Cash has
recorded before: the born-again hymn "I Came to Believe" and the final spiritual, "I'm Free from the Chain Gang Now." The latter especially is a definitive testament, as is his version of Bruce Springsteen's "Further On (Up the Road)." "One sunny morning we'll rise, I know / And I'll meet you further on up the road," he sings. If only, John, if only. --Roy Kasten