Johnny Cash wastes no time addressing his recent battle with a nearly fatal illness. He makes the album's opening track - a vigorously played rendition of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" - sound like a challenge to Death himself. Throughout this disc, Cash addresses his frequent themes of live and death, good and evil, but they resonate more deeply now.
The powerful back-to-back pairing of Will Oldham's "I See Darkness" and Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat" explores the dark side of man, but there's a keen sense of humanity. He imbues love songs, like U2's "One," with an urgent sense of morality. Even Cash's own comic tune "Country Trash" ends on a serious note: "But we'll all be equal under the grass/And God's got a heaven for country trash." Producer Rick Rubin's spare, guitar/organ foundation enhances Cash's vocals, which now bear a bit more vulnerability. His emotion-filled singing turns "Before My Time" into a striking evocation of timeless love. On this stirring, triumphant album, the oft-troubled Cash sounds like a man with a strong will to live, but also someone who has made peace with death - as he closes the record with "Wayfaring Stranger," a song where a man sees death as a trip home.