Meta Review: Johnny Cash Album Reflects on Death

More so than usual, that is

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American VI: Ain't No Grave, the latest album to come out of Johnny Cash's years-long collaboration with producer Rick Rubin, was released earlier this week. Cash, who died in 2003, recorded Ain't No Grave in the last few months of his life. The recording is rumored to be the final album in Rubin's acclaimed American series. New Johnny Cash music is never a bad thing, but critics can't quite agree whether the record serves as a fitting capstone to the country legend's career.

  • Yes: Lets Cash Say Goodbye on His Own Terms The A.V. Club's Keith Phipps praises Ain't No Grave unequivocally, noting that the album was "recorded at least partly after the death of Cash's wife, June Carter Cash, as his sight dimmed and his own body failed him for the last time ... But as usual, Cash uses his Christian faith as the ultimate rebuttal to life's disappointments. 'Ain't no grave gonna hold my body down,' Cash sings, as the musical setting of the traditional title track sounds ominous tones. Hope was his last act of defiance."
  • Yes: Turns Away From Gloom and Doom In a thoughtful Rolling Stone review, Jody Rosen opines, "There were times that the American Recordings series veered uncomfortably close to what might be called morbidity kitsch, with black-and-white cover art and production, full of tolling bass-piano notes, that overplayed the doomy impending-mortality vibe. You can hear that Cash is closing in on the end on Ain't No Grave ... And yet he is unmistakably sprightly and alive, delivering each song with a master-vocal stylist's gift for phrasing ... As for death, he sounds ready, not haunted."
  • Yes: Uneven but Ends on a Grace Note Yahoo! Music's Garry Mulholland isn't enamored of every cut, complaining that "a strong first act becomes a sagging middle-bit," but finds that the record's last track, a knowing cover of Aloha Oe, succeeds in "undercutting all the portentous symbolism that we've projected upon a man who, when all is said, done and demystified, just sang some songs, took some drugs, got clean, and sang a few more songs."
  • No: More a Showcase for Rubin Than Cash Pitchfork's Stephen Duesner swims against the tide of praise, griping that "Rubin comes across as deeply sentimental and fashions Ain't No Grave-- rumored to be the final installment in the series-- as a tearjerker ... Ain't No Grave isn't really Cash's farewell as much as it is Rubin's memorial mixtape."
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