"...as if that old softy Rick Rubin gently advised his fast-failing charge that if there was ever a song he wanted to sing he'd better not put it off till next time, 'cause there probably wasn't gonna be one." - Robert Christgau
You put the album on, and it doesn't take long to figure out what's on Johnny's mind:
There's a man going around taking names/And he decides who to free and who to blame/Everybody won't be treated all the same/There will be a golden ladder reaching down/When the man comes around - The Man Comes Around
"American IV" is an album steeped in death. It is an album that tells the story of a man who is ready to take the measure of his life. And even though there has been a posthumous release, there seems little doubt that Johnny knew that this would be the last album to be released in his lifetime. A collection of new Cash tunes ("The Man Comes Around"), old Cash originals ("Give My Love to Rose"), traditional songs ("Danny Boy," "Streets of Laredo"), and brilliantly chosen and sequenced covers ("Hurt," "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," "I Hung My Head," "In My Life," others), the album is a meditation on death, and is perhaps the greatest contemplation of death any artist has ever created.
In my book, Rick Rubin deserves a special spot in the rock and roll pantheon (and the country pantheon as well!) for what he achieved with Johnny Cash in the last decade of Johnny's life. All great artists should be so lucky. Rubin is at his best on "American IV" - his technique of emphasizing simple piano chords at key moments of a song has never been used to better effect, particularly on the harrowing "Hurt" - which ceased to be a Nine Inch Nails song the moment that Johnny sang it. I remember the first time I heard it, shopping at a downtown record store - and when it came on, I froze in my tracks, and felt the goosebumps all over my body. Hundreds of listens later, that still happens. Just amazing.
So thank you, Rick Rubin. And thank you, Johnny Cash.
Get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin/Six dance-hall maidens to bear up my pall/Throw bunches of roses all over my coffin/Roses to deaden the clods as they fall - Streets of Laredo