Funny how, when channeled through Cash’s world-weary baritone, songs about death sound like such downers. Yet the prevailing message of the hushed covers, traditional reworkings and lone Bible verse (“I Corinthians 15:55”) set to sparse strings and acoustic strums is ultimately one of defiance, redemption and joy.
The final (and second posthumous) release of the Rick Rubin-produced American series culls 10 tracks from the American V: A Hundred Highways sessions. The B-sides don’t quite stack up to their predecessor, but unlike earlier collaborations (IV’s take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” for example), VI throws few curveballs regarding either range or theme. The chain-link shuffle of Claude Ely’s title track’s hearkens Gabriel’s trumpet, while Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day” sets its sights on heaven’s gate and Ed McCurdy’s “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” envisions bowed heads, joined prayer and eternal peace. Even secular tracks like Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” and Joe “Red” Hayes and Jack Rhodes’ oft-covered “A Satisfied Mind” make peace with mortal loss and prepare to face what comes next.
It may be a different paradise from which Cash bids “Farewell to thee ... Until we meet again” in closer “Aloha Oe,” but a bridge subtly echoing the hymn “How Great Thou Art” belies his journey’s true destination.