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Singing At Death's Door

Johnny Cash was resigned to his fate when he recorded his last album, which brings a unique drama to the narrative, writes Eamon Carr.

Well look down the river, what do you think I see? I see a band of angels and they're coming after me." When Johnny Cash recorded the songs, on what producer Rick Rubin vows will be the last official new album we'll hear by the Man in Black, he was staring death in the face. The man we watched with morbid fascination in the epic video for his take on Nine Inch Nails' Hurt is even more frail, more resigned to his fate on these songs. The stark reality is that Cash recorded this album at death's door.

He died in September 2003, four months after the death of his wife, June Carter Cash. Johnny struggled on. Despite being in and out of hospital, and racked with pain and grief, he insisted on recording. According to Rubin, it was his work, his desire to record, that kept Johnny alive over those last few agonising months.

Okay, so Ain't No Grave isn't a bundle of laughs. It's not a floor-filling glitzy bling-pop extravagance. It's simply a remarkable document of one man's defiance as the spectre of the inevitable looms.

"Oh, death where is thy sting? Oh, grave where is thy victory," croaks Cash on the one song of these ten that he wrote. 1 Corinthians 15:55 is a text you might be familiar with from funerals. Delivering a waltz-time country spiritual, Cash sounds almost beat, as he convinces listeners that there is something positive and worthwhile ahead of us. He incorporates the Bible in a lyric that boasts "hope springs eternal ... "

Rubin pulls together a fine selection of songs that convey a great warmth and deep spiritual groove. Tom Paxton's Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound is a classic road song, but the reality of Cash's predicament brings a further unique drama to the narrative. The playing throughout, with Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on piano and organ, is never less than perfect, embroidering a folksy homespun background that sets Cash's vocal in bright relief.

After Johnny's death, Bob Dylan was asked to make a statement about his late friend. "I thought about writing a piece called Cash is King," he said. "That is the way I really feel. Johnny was and is the North Star. You could guide your ship by him, the greatest of the greats."

Cash was, and remains, truly monumental. From his early work, such as I Walk the Line, through his great prison albums to the many collaborations with Rubin which began in 1994, Cash's clarity of vision and determination to hold on to a faith in a greater power burns as bright as a biblical bush.

The cover photo on the new album is of the gap-toothed boy who grew up in the Mississippi delta during the Great Depression. It's the kid who began singing the gospel songs he learned from his mother and ended up becoming one of the world's truly iconic artists.

Sheryl Crow sang at Cash's funeral. Here, Johnny sings her song, Redemption Day. His gravelly baritone makes it sound like something found in a deep, dark coal mine. "I've wept for those who suffer long/ But now I weep for those who've gone/ Into rooms of grief and questioned wrong/ But keep on killing ... "

Johnny finds comfort in Kris Kristofferson's For the Good Times and Bob Nolan's Cool Water, but the title track remains the album's most powerful statement of aspiration. "Ain't no grave can hold my body down ... "

The official release date is pegged as tomorrow, which would have been Cash's 78th birthday. Fans are asked to wear something black to commemorate him tomorrow. Give it socks for Johnny. * * *