Top positive review
107 people found this helpful
A work of sublime beauty
on 13 July 2006
These songs were recorded while Johnny Cash was wheelchair-bound, nearly blind, asthmatic, diabetic, in constant pain and grieving the death of his soulmate and love of his life June Carter Cash, whom he would join mere weeks after the last of these tracks was recorded. Despite all that, he managed, through sheer force of will, to create an album of honesty and beauty that will stay with you long after the last note fades.
The album opens with a straightfoward appeal for help. "Oh Lord, help me to walk another mile, just one more mile" he sings on "Help Me", a hauntingly beautiful song that is neither maudlin nor overly sentimental. This is followed by what the sequencing seems to suggest is God's answer to that humble plea, the slashing, foot-stomping "God's Gonna Cut You Down". Cash seems to relish the role of the avenging hand and sings this one with gusto.
"Like the 309", the last song Cash wrote and recorded, has him returning to the "train song" motif that has been a lifeblood of his music. Cash stares down "Dr. Death" with a wink, a sly grin and a clear-eyed view of his own mortality. "Tell me all about it, what I did wrong/Meanwhile, I will be doin' fine/Then load my box on the 309".
Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind", a staple of light-pop radio, is transformed by Cash from a pleasantly hummable song about a romantic breakup into a harrowing trip into a dark night of the soul. Cash's voice is at its weakest here as he struggles for breath and pitch but that only serves to make the effect greater. Lyrics that seemed throwaway in the original seem weighted with years of regret and pain when sung by Cash. His voice breaks and nearly disappears while singing "The feeling's gone/And I just can't get it back" and "If you read between the lines/You'll know that I'm just trying to understand".
Cash takes Bruce Springsteen's "Further On Up the Road" from "The Rising" and turns it into the song it was always meant to be. What was a hard-driving rock song when done by Springsteen becomes, in Cash's hands, an instantly classic folk song that sounds like it was handed down through the years. The melody is allowed to breathe, the lyrics are clear and beautiful and the song becomes a meditation on life, faith and redemption. "If there's a light up ahead/well, brother, I don't know/But I'll meet you further on up the road".
The specter of June Carter Cash hovers over many songs on the album, notably "On the Evening Train" (the Hank Williams song about a widower sending off his wife's casket at the depot), "Love's Been Good to Me" and "Rose of My Heart" ("We're the best partners this world's ever seen... You are the rose of my heart/You are the love of my life" ). "Four Strong Winds", with its lyrics "Now our good times are all gone/And I'm bound for moving on" takes on a different meaning altogether from its original "good love gone bad" connotation.
The album closes with "I'm Free From the Chain Gang Now", a song Cash originally recorded in 1962. Back then, in the hands of a young man, the song was simply about a prisoner released from his shackles. Now, as recorded by an old man with his soulmate gone, his health gone and his best days behind him, the song is about freedom from earthly bonds. I don't think it's a coincidence that Cash's voice sounds strongest on this track. When he sings "I got rid of the shackles that bound me" he sounds like a man who has made peace with his past and is looking forward to moving on to the next station. On September 12, 2003 Johnny Cash was freed from his earthly shackles but, to our great benefit, he had the strength and talent to leave behind some sublime beauty for the rest of us. I love you, John. I'll meet you further on up the road.