Ain’t No Grave
(distrib Universal Music)
I hope this really is the last of the Rick Rubin/Johnny Cash collaborations to get a posthumous release. Not that there is too much wrong with the album; just that it really does feel like the last roll of the dice and that maybe the whole project has now outlived everything that made it so special.
If Ain’t No Grave, the final installment in Johnny Cash’s rich collaboration with producer Rick Rubin, had appeared in, say, 1980, in the midst of an otherwise undistinguished run of Cash albums, it would have hardly caused a ripple. The raw ingredients—a few covers of well-known country hits, a couple of traditional folk songs, an original sacred composition—reprise the same formula that Cash employed since the early ’70s. It had all been done before, and many times.
What this sort of analysis misses, though, is that you can’t really separate music from the circumstances of its release. Art is always inextricably linked to context in which we find it, whether at a personal level or at the level of broader society, so you might as well say, well, Straivnsky’s Firebird wouldn’t have cause the stir it did if it was released in 1950, or that nobody would’ve cared about the Sex Pistols if they had shown up in 1985, or that that love song that brings tears to your eyes every time you hear it would’ve just passed you by if it wasn’t playing on the car radio when your girlfriend told you it wasn’t you it was her and then went off and married your best friend.
Similarly, you can’t get away from the fact that this latest Cash album is posthumous, was recorded as the great man was preparing to cross over, and that therefore there is something inherently affecting about the idea of such a person in such circumstances singing songs of death.
On the other hand, all of that doesn’t mean that everything recorded under such circumstances is going to be worth your while or is somehow imbued with pathos or greatness or anything else.
So let’s just say that I have mixed feelings about the album. To me, it does sound like — on the whole — a collection of songs that were passed up when the previous albums in the series were put together, and that — on the whole — they are therefore second picks and don’t quite rise to the level of the previous albums. The versions of ‘For the Good Times’ and ‘Cool Water’, for instance, don’t bring anything much to the table, and even ‘Satisfied Mind’ and ‘Can’t Help But’ are fairly average by Cash standards.
Still, the album has its moments. The title track, ‘Ain’t No Grave’ and the song that follows it, ‘Redemption Day’, embody not only Cash’s raw talent, but showcase that talent in the way that lies at the heart of the success of this series of albums, which is to say the aformentioned collision between great songs, a great artist, and poignant timing.
On these two tracks, and the first in particular, I think Cash’s voice sounds as good as it ever has. It has lost some of its lower register resonance, sounds a little higher and a little thinner to me, but in the end these things are no loss at all. He sings both tracks beautifully and there is a quality to the vocal that fits the lyric and the circumstances of the recording perfectly.
I also think the final track, ‘Aloha Oe’ is a beautiful send off for Cash and the album and that the Paste review again gets it right:
Grave concludes with a hopeful reading of Ed McCurdy’s classic song “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” and with an impossibly moving cover of “Aloha Oe,” a song that is as cloying as any ever written. It calls to mind images of swaying hula girls and Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii, and it shouldn’t work. But it does. That’s because it’s a song informed by intravenous drips and the smell of hospital disinfectant, not by an island paradise. Until we meet again, indeed.
But just to prove that dying man singing of death doesn’t automatically equal moving moment of pathos, ‘1 Corinthians 15:55’ comes along (track 4). I don’t know, but something about the delivery here sounded false to me, no matter how unfair that sounds. The way the voices catches on the word “vic-tory” was especially inappropriate, I thought. Maybe it’s the song itself, the way the melody and the lyrics interact, but I found this one just about cringeworthy. For me, it is the low point of the album.
So look, the bottom line is, let this be the end. The album isn’t great, but it is perfectly decent and it includes at least two really great tracks. Time to say thanks for series, thanks for the memories, and let this be the end.