American VI, the supposed last official Johnny Cash release — at least until he’s inevitably Tupac’ed into a punchline — makes it apparent that the whole series is the product of a bar bet between Cash and producer Rick Rubin. After Cash masterfully recast appropriate covers of Loudon Wainwright III (“The Man Who Couldn’t Cry”) and Nick Cave (“The Mercy Seat”) songs in his own image and flat-out hijacked some less intuitive others (Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage”) never to return them, the Man in Black must’ve gotten bored and bet he could transform the next song that walked into the room into the Folsom Prison prom queen. What other scenario could explain selections from Neil Diamond, Gordon Lightfoot, and Depeche Mode? But damned if he doesn’t She’s All That that shit beyond all recognition.
So it should be no shock to those familiar with the previous five Americans that Cash comes away from VI’s biggest eyebrow-archer, Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day,” injury-free, but what’s more, it may be — along with the eerie, Avett Brother-featuring gospel title track — the album’s highlight. “Redemption Day”, taken from Crow’s self-titled sophomore album, drips compassion and decries hypocrisy in simply stated humanistic terms, and Cash, never much of a man for metaphors, sounds unbelievably at home in it. In his last years, Cash’s voice lost much of its signature muscle, but his ability to imbue each line with emotion only strengthened with age. Songs like Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times,” and dry-eyed anti-love ballad “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” condense lifetimes of longing and regret, enough to give new depth to your grouchy grandfather. And like many of our grandpas, Cash continues telling you about his weird old-time religion. The Cash-penned “I Corinthians 15:55” provides the chance to trash-talk death from the grave that ain’t gonna hold him, even if the following “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” casts a little doubt. But his hopeful cover of Ed McCurdy’s somewhat cheesy war-decrying “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” differentiates Cash from far too many Christians: He actually seems to care what the man he claims to love had to say. The only song that doesn’t work is closer “Aloha Oe,” Queen Lili’uokalan’s classic farewell, which has been so overused even Cash can’t sing it without conjuring images of the Brady Bunch’s cursed idol mishaps. Otherwise, VI, is about the best Cash fans could hope for: a final half-hour with the man himself. — Jeremy Martin