Friday, April 25, 2008

American V

David recently bought American V: A Hundred Highways, Johnny Cash's last recording which was released posthumously in 2006.

It's truly wonderful. The liner notes, by the producer Rick Rubin, describe a poignant picture of the final months of work in between Cash's hospital stays. He knew he was not going to live much longer, but the tone of many of these songs is of a man heading towards his final rest, almost in anticipation of it. You can certainly hear his failing breath in some of the tracks, particularly the first one. It's the same raw baritone from the great early songs, but his age is palpable. Some of the tracks are simply beautiful - my favourite is If You Could Read My Mind - sparsely accompanied with a mature sense of pace and breath.

At first I thought the lyrics were rather morbid, on his knees praying for forgiveness in many of them, but on further listenings I totally agree with one online review that: "There is something quite heart-filling as much as heart-rending in these songs and in these performances."

In a funny way the recording reminds me of Strauss's Four Last Songs, which always bring me to a standstill whenever I hear them. The contrast between the scratchy wheezing Johnny Cash and the impeccably elegant Strauss in his old age is fairly transparent, but both share the expression of an old man, coming to the end of his life, wanting to leave the world with a last and lasting contribution, and doing it with the years of experience and expertise behind them.

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