Drawn from Johnny Cash's final sessions with producer Rick Rubin, American V is another moving chapter in a great American artist's remarkable late-life journey. In the end, Cash's presence, even when he's clearly in a weakened state -- he died four months later -- remains commanding. The mood is reflective, the artist imparting his sense of an endgame playing out and, poignantly, faced alone (these recordings were made in the months after the death of Cash's wife, June Carter Cash). One of the most beautiful moments on any Cash record comes via a lilting version of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind," a wobbly, ragged vocal caressing the haunting lyrics just so, at times sounding so weak you wonder if Cash will get through the number. An elegantly fingerpicked acoustic guitar line is bolstered by Benmont Tench's organ, humming reverently in the style of a hymn of invitation. Many of the songs reference death explicitly (the bluesy, bopping "Like the 309," the final recorded Cash original) or obliquely (Larry Gatlin's dirge-like "Help Me"), whereas others, such as Springsteen's low-key folk blues "Further On (Up the Road)," suggest a reunion in the afterlife. Grim as this all sounds, Cash lets the light in with two touching love ballads, Rod McKuen's reflective affirmation "Love's Been Good to Me" and Hugh Moffatt's unfettered billet-doux "Rose of My Heart." The sound remains spare, with Benmont Tench's piano, organ, and harpsichord flourishes offering gentle support to a sextet of guitarists (including Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, Randy Scruggs, and Smokey Hormel) who pick evocative, minimalist phrases in such a way that Cash often sounds like he's accompanied only by a music box. Other musicians are credited with unspecified "invaluable contributions," but surely Marty Stuart's adding the mandolin lines here and there, "Uncle" Josh Grave is behind the dobro cries, and Cash's old Sun compadre, "Uncle" Jack Clement, wasn't just along for the ride. Well-traveled highways, these, and the going was good.