Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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***1/2

JOHNNY CASH
American V: A Hundred Highways
Lost Highway/American

At his end, Cash kept singing about death

Inevitably, because death is inevitable, rock & roll has generated a tiny canon of death albums. Not de facto farewells read as prophecies, like the Notorious B.I.G.'s Life After Death, but music focused and strengthened by the daily pressure of life-threatening illness, like Warren Zevon's The Wind. Johnny Cash already has a great one in his capacious résumé. Leading with a self-written title tribute to the Grim Reaper, 2002's American IV: The Man Comes Around is easily the most impressive of Cash's late-life, Rick Rubin-produced forays into stark myths. American V is meant to trump it. This is asking too much.

Begun as soon as American IV was done, and continued full-bore after the devastating May 2003 death of his wife June Carter Cash, these songs carry the weight of felt necessity. Whatever "authenticity" is, they've got. But with Cash doomed to pass soon, they also carry the weight of decrepitude. A train song about a funeral train, it repeatedly references the shortness of breath that mars it technically: "Asthma's coming down/Like the 309." But right after, Cash's inability to carry the tune of the Gordon Lightfoot '70s pop chestnut "If You Could Read My Mind" will move the weepy, and embarrass or confound the rest of us.

While courage in the face of death is a wondrous thing, physical decay is not, and death per se is the universal bummer. Some selections are heart-wrenching: The old hymn "God's Gonna Cut You Down" and Hank Williams's mournful "On the Evening Train" are admonitions well-croaked. But others bear the strain of sentimentality, denial, even exploitation. Johnny Cash has become an American hero because he straddles so many of our contradictions. But reconciling life and death is not for mortal man.

Blender, July 2006