Monday, February 22, 2010

A Cashless world - Johnny Cash: American VI

One of the many wonderful things about music is how it never ceases to surprise you in the ways it can speak to you. You might think it speaks to you through clever, new melodies that take you to unexpected places, or through wild untamed rhythms , or just through those amazing performances that leave you gobsmacked by their sheer musical prowess. And then something comes along that flies in the face of all of that, something that takes your breath away, something that sends goosebumps down your arms or tears down your cheeks, and you are left wondering, yet again, about what makes music work.

Something like Johnny Cash’s final studio recordings, the ‘American Recordings’.

These albums are not what the rule books tend to suggest good music should sound like, and yet still somehow they hold you, rock you like a mother rocks her child, and make you feel that everything will be all right.

And nowhere is this stronger than in the final of the series – American VI: Ain’t no Grave – released only a few days ago. Here, Cash’s voice is unsteady, and out of breath and with a range of about a quarter of an octave; the songs are mostly predictable and with tunes and beats like every other country song you have heard; there's about three chords throughout the whole album. And yet the experience of listening to it is like no other.

For the most part, American VI is produced simply, with only a track, or a phrase, here and there embellished by the producer. So what you get most of the time is the rough and rickety voice of the dying Cash. But it’s a voice that weeps with conviction – a voice that celebrates the hardship that has rubbed it raw, and a voice that believes with every worn and haggard chord, that it is bound for paradise.

The opening and title ‘Ain’t no grave’, with solid, steady footstomps, almost like a death-knell, beneath a plucked banjo sets the mood for this album – a walk towards death, but one where the gaze is ahead to something comforting, something longed for, rather than something dreaded or feared.

‘Redemption Day’ follows the same path, with the deep peal of its bass echoing as if in a cavern, but one where there is a pathway through that leads to freedom.

The only song here that Cash wrote himself is ‘1 Corinthians 15:55’, building from a shaky, staggering opening with bare guitar and wobbly voice picking out the notes almost, it seems, as they go along, but building almost imperceptibly in its strength and solidity, so that you see that that unsteady opening was not a blemish but part of the story.

While not everything here is about a journey to death and the afterlife – like, Kris Kristofferson’s ‘For the Good Times’, or Bob Nolan’s ‘Cool Water’ – everything seems to somehow be about moving on from something or yearning for something else. They are songs about simple things, and songs that find meaning in their simplicity.

So there are no unexpected twists and turns in these songs. The melodies and the rhythms always go where you expect them to, the harmonies are uncomplicated and generally pretty sparse, and all of the songs sound vaguely like you have heard them before. But, in a way, that’s the point. The message here is that the enduring things in life, and beyond it, are the things that have been there all along and, whether you take that message from a religious angle or from another, or even you don’t believe it at all, Johnny Cash, faltering voice and all, certainly delivers it here with conviction. Listen, for example, to 'Satisfied Mind': a song where wealth is shunned and riches are found instead in ordinary humanity, a song where everything is unadorned and straightforward because it just wouldn't make sense for them to be anything else.

American VI is packaged as simply and as tellingly as the songs it contains: a black and white photo of Cash as a child is on the front cover, a photo of a window with his thin reflection as an old man on the back. The booklet cover is of an old, wrinkled hand – presumably Cash’s – writing some music. Together it all says a lot about why this album is important: an album where memories, age and music come together, frail and yet somehow enduring.

It’s one heck of a way to say goodbye.

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