Rick Rubin elected to wait until the movie-related media hubbub had died down before releasing this final volume of Johnny Cash's work for his American Recordings label - a decision that allows the country legend's swansong to stand alone, a last testament to the unerring truth of his art. It is easily the best of the five American albums, and one of the most compelling releases of Cash's career, a work of moving simplicity and emotional directness that underlines how rare those qualities have become in our cynical times.
The song selection is not as surprising as on previous American albums - there's no Nine Inch Nails or Depeche Mode material, or anything comparable - but Cash's choices here are more pertinent to his own situation. His gnarled, weatherbeaten voice cracks almost into tears on a version of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" imbued, perhaps, with memories of his late wife - a subject more directly confronted on Hank Williams's gloomy "On the Evening Train", where he comforts his children as "they're taking mama away from us on the evening train". The association of trains and death also figures strongly in "Like the 309", a languid country-blues slouch that was the last song Cash ever wrote. "Well I'm not the cryin' or the whinin' kind/ Till I hear the whistle of the 309", he claims, staring death in the face with courageous equanimity as he contemplates his own final journey "in my box on the 309".
Such final reckonings loom large over A Hundred Highways - all of which, one presumes, lead to the same place. "God's Gonna Cut You Down" is a bleaker version of the same "Run On" spiritual plundered by Moby, here set to a clap-and-drumbeat pulse whose chain-gang rhythm signifies how manacled we are to our eventual judgement. It sets up the album's closing song, "I'm Free from the Chain Gang Now", in which a wrongly imprisoned convict finally gets his release, Cash's sombre croak leaving us in no doubt about the morbid nature of that delivery.
Rubin's arrangements are sensitive and sympathetic, taking great care never to get in the way of that Mount Rushmore voice. Springsteen's "Further on (up the Road)" is taken at a gentle trot, but the most effective productions here are probably those of Larry Gatlin's gospel affirmation, "Help Me" ("...to walk another mile, just one more mile") and Cash's own "I Came to Believe", on both of which the guitar picking is strengthened by a bed of lowing cello, a suitably sombre support for Johnny's last walk.
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