It would be hard, if not impossible, for this sixth volume of Johnny Cash's American series to equal the pinnacular standard of its predecessor A Hundred Highways, which at the time was believed to be the final batch of songs stockpiled by the producer Rick Rubin before Cash's death.
That Ain't No Grave comes so close to those heights is cause for rejoicing, even if the title does suggest that this really is the last time the bucket will be hauled up, brimming, from that particular well.
As with A Hundred Highways, the song selection lacks the shock value of earlier volumes in the series, eschewing transformative covers like Cash's version of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" in favour of material that fits the ageing troubadour like well-worn-in boots. Once again, death stalks these songs, though this time it's the singer's own looming mortality, rather than the emotional trauma of his wife's passing, which seems to haunt them. "Ain't no grave can hold my body down," sings Cash on the title-track, but the arrangement suggests otherwise, a funereal shuffle-slouch with plaintive banjo underpinned by sepulchral organ and a few portentous piano chords. Of course, it's not Cash's body that survives, but his art and his lingering stature as a giant of American music.
Elsewhere, the tone is nobly valedictory, with songs such as "Satisfied Mind", "I Don't Hurt Anymore" and "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" enabling him to muse upon things like the varieties of loss, and the relative values placed upon matters emotional and merely material. Kris Kristofferson's emblematic "For the Good Times" offers a final recommendation to snatch comforts wherever one can – "There's no need to watch the bridges that we're burning" – while "1 Corinthians 15:55" finds Cash taking the familiar biblical sentiment "O death, where is thy sting?" and extending it into an expression of the hope he feels "over the rise, when I see my redeemer beckoning to me".
Redemption is the subtext of the entire album, from the opening title-track to the concluding Hawaiian farewell "Aloha Oe", and never more so than on a devastating version of Sheryl Crow's "Redemption Day", where the dry husk of Cash's fading voice gets to reflect upon the darkness of souls, and the "train that's heading straight to heaven's gate". Compared to the pared-back arrangements of most of the tracks, on which anything more than the solitary strum of guitar seems too worldly an indulgence, Rubin here has burnished the doomy piano chords and fingerstyle guitar with a subtle sheen of strings, like light reflecting from distant pearly gates to illuminate the singer's final path.
Download this Ain't No Grave; Redemption Day; 1 Corinthians 15:55; For the Good Times