By Gilbert Cruz
Updated June 26, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Johnny Cash: Martyn Atkins

Has there been a recent musical project more death-obsessed than Johnny Cash’s American Recordings cycle? Begun in 1994 under producer Rick Rubin, the four discs that brought Cash back to artistic life were — with the exception of 1996’s often rollicking Unchained — one long, slow, sometimes sullen, always gorgeous march to the grave. You could hear age creep ever more into his voice on each record.

The posthumous American V: A Hundred Highways, an equally melancholy mix of covers, traditionals, and original compositions, looks at death and gives it a weary shrug and nod. Cash began working on it immediately after finishing 2002’s American IV: The Man Comes Around (which starred Nine Inch Nails’ ”Hurt”) and continued recording after the death of his longtime love, June Carter Cash, right up to his own passing on Sept. 12, 2003. It must have been a balm on his broken heart to keep working and singing, trying to convince himself that there were still things left to live for. ”I pray that God will give me courage/To carry on till we meet again/It’s hard to know she’s gone forever,” he croons on a cover of Hank Williams’ dead-wife lament ”On the Evening Train.” It’s a poignant song, but not nearly as much as Cash’s version of Gordon Lightfoot’s ”If You Could Read My Mind,” in which he almost sounds more vulnerable and fragile than he did on ”Hurt,” practically running out of breath at the close of every lyric.

Was he thinking of his own end? His health was fading, so it’s hard to imagine that he wasn’t. The man’s spirituality — so overlooked in last year’s Walk the Line — is everywhere. There’s album opener ”Help Me,” a plaintive prayer, followed by ”God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” an old spiritual about the Lord’s wrath, which manages to pull off a ”We Will Rock You”-ish stomp/clap refrain that is simultaneously holy and badass. One of the two songs written by Cash, ”I Came to Believe,” is about religious belief, while the other, ”Like the 309” (the very last song he wrote), is likely about his own death, though it is definitely about a train. It’s one of the few tracks that moves with Cash’s old locomotive-like thrum. That’s not to suggest that American V is a total downer. Better put, it’s contentedly bleak. If this is, as Rubin has said, ”Johnny’s final statement” (despite the rumors of an American VI — will this be the Tupac-ification of Cash?), then it is a fitting one, completely representative of the faithful old man he had become, having long ago shed his outlaw image no matter how often others tried to resaddle him with it.

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