The album is finely crafted and mostly unadorned. Cash's signature voice -- a quivering, unsteady, sometimes ghostly voice, worn by time, but as rough-hewn and full of conviction as ever -- is at center stage here. The supporting cast of musicians, including six different guitarists, never gets in the way of The Man.
It's obvious that Cash was in a race with "Doctor Death" on this album. The first three tunes -- "Help Me" (written by Larry Gatlin), "God's Gonna Cut You Down" (traditional country gospel) and "Like the 309" (Cash himself) -- all have to do with death and dying. "God's Gonna Cut You Down" is a come-to-Jesus sermonette, a word of warning to the long-tongued liars, ramblers, gamblers and backbiters from one who knows, set to a backwater-blues guitar and rhythmic hand claps that portend ultimate judgment.("As sure as God made black and white," Cash sings, "what's done in the dark will be brought to the light.") "Like the 309" is a dying man's request that his head be kept cool when they "put me in my box on the 309."
Take me the depot, put me to bed Blow an electric fan on my gnarly old head Everybody take a look, see I'm doing fine And load my box on the 309
Cash addresses death on other tracks, too -- most notably his amazing cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Further On (Up the Road)," which was part of Springsteen's post-9/11 album The Rising. Despite the subject matter and Cash's ghostly vocals, the songs don't come off as depressing or macabre. Instead, they come off as hopeful, reflecting Cash's deep faith in God and his place in eternity.
Death is not the only subject on this CD. Love is another. "Rose of My Heart," written by Hugh Moffatt, is a love song Cash seems to be singing to the spirit of his deceased wife, June Carter, whom he soon joined in eternity. He breathed new life into Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind," a song I never much cared for until I heard this cover.
Up to the end, Cash made beautiful music. Listening to American V, it's obvious he loved what he was doing. What a wonderful way to live a life, and what a wonderful final work from a true musical master.
Footnote: Billboard reports that American V is at the top of the charts. It's Cash's first No. 1 album since 1969, when Johnny Cash at San Quentin was there.