Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  And It Don't Stop
  Book Reports
  Is It Still Good to Ya?
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Xgau Sez
  And It Don't Stop
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Rolling Stone
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
Web Site:
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
CG Search:
Google Search:

Fade to Black


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