Monday, December 18, 2006

American V: A Hundred Highways

I don't like posthumous records. Warren Zevon's The Wind was a solid record, to be sure, but it wasn't as good as Excitable Boy, The Envoy, or Sentimental Hygiene. Zevon's very public illness and death got it a bit more press than it would have gotten otherwise. Of course, Zevon was a wry commentator on the dark side of the apotheosis of the American dream, Southern California. He wasn't a legend. Johnny Cash, on the other hand, was a legend twenty years ago. When he died, three or so years back, he was in that rare stratum of modern popular music: the unimpeachable. There was no point criticizing Cash, since everyone had decided long ago whether or not they liked him.

Therefore, a posthumous entry from Johnny Cash was something to fear. Not exactly in the same way as American IV: The Man Comes Around, which was completed before Cash died, but in another way. Could Rick Rubin, Wunderkind (though not much of a Kind these days) producer, complete what Cash started? Yes and no. The big track of American V will be "God's Gonna Cut You Down," which is a bit unfortunate. The thundering, repetitive percussion is (to these ears) antithetical to the American Recordings discs, which eschewed fancy arrangements to feature Cash's voice and an acoustic guitar. Unflinching and spare, perhaps, is a better way to characterize these sets. Also, covering Gordon Lightfoot? Give me a break.

Is American V a good record? Yes and no, once again. Compared to Death Cab for Cutie's Plans, Gwen Stefani's The Sweet Escape, or Justin Timberlake's "My Love," American V is the very hammer of God. Too mighty to ignore, but too overwhelming to fully appreciate. Compared to music that isn't immediately disposable (not that I don't like that music, too), it is in a more difficult position. In fact, I'll avoid running it against Blood on the Tracks, The Final Cut (an album which I should explore later), or Transformer. No, American IV: The Man Comes Around is a good comparison. They are similar albums with similar feels. However, American IV is far more valedictory than American V. There is a finality at the end of the earlier record, a release. American V, chronologically, picks up right afterwards, but the catharsis is gone.

Cash went from examining a life to exploring death. Granted, his resonant and understanding readings of songs like Springsteen's "Further On Up The Road" (off The Rising) blow Death Cab's "I Will Follow You Into The Dark" out of the water. However, that's like saying that Wagner blows Meat Loaf out of the water. But of course, my dear, but of course. Cash, it seems, did better with songs about life - songs about experience, which his ancient voice conveyed like an Old Testament prophet. Like a man knowing that God was there, backing him up and ready to take the microphone if he faltered.

The usually-risible Pitchfork Media (think ClassicsToday for hipsters in tight jeans and ironic t-shirts) made an astute comment about the Personal File set:

The Tupac'ing of the Man in Black stretches into the near future, with a fifth installment of his diminishing-returns American Recordings collaboration with Rick Rubin due in July. But for now, there's another posthumous chapter: the vault clearing.

I (for the most part) agree with that. American IV, with "Hurt," was as intelligent a personal statement and a farewell as one could hope to record. This record, for its part, has some very introspective and intelligent moments - but I am not sure that there was anything left to say. It was no longer an issue of talent, any country superstar "nearing the goal" who could take Trent Reznor's self-pitying, self-indulgent whine and give it some gravitas has talent. Cash said all there was to say, and - while he clearly disagreed (perhaps out of loyalty to his then-recently deceased bride, June Carter Cash) - he could have gone into the final curtain knowing that he proved himself once again.

American V is a solid record, as was the Unearthed box set, but there wasn't much need to say anything more.

For the record, I am listening to Karl Böhm's 1977 Don Giovanni from the Salzburger Festspiele as I write this. Why do I mention this? Just to prove I can maintain objectivity.


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