Wednesday, December 19, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1210: Johnny Cash

Once again a busy week conspired against me finding time to write a review, and left me to give an album many more listens than I might have otherwise. Once again the experience was positive.

Disc 1210 is… Unchained
Artist: Johnny Cash

Year of Release: 1996

What’s up with the Cover? You can spend a lot of time proving you can hit the broad side of a barn but as Johnny shows here, they’re mostly good for leanin’.

How I Came To Know It: Johnny’s been in my house longer than I have (my mom used to listen to him before I was born) but this particular album was the result of more recent drilling through his musical Renaissance with Rick Rubin.

How It Stacks Up:  I have added to my Johnny Cash collection since I reviewed “American III: Solitary Man” back at Disc 687. As a result I now have seven studio albums: three from his heyday and four from his rebirth in the nineties and oughts. even “Unchained” is first among the rebirth albums and second overall.

Ratings:  4 stars

In 1994 Rick Rubin reinvigorated and reinvented Johnny Cash for a whole new generation of fans with “American Recordings.” Its follow up, “Unchained,” takes the same stripped down and stark approach Cash’s signature voice, creating a record that is raw and real and proof positive that Cash was back on top, and there to stay.

All of the American Recordings produced by Rubin strip the bells and whistles out of its song selections, and leave the skeleton bare and white for your consideration. This would expose any melodic shortcomings in short order, but Cash has always been a master curator of songs, and only selects the best. Whether a song is metal, folk, country or pop, Cash can always hear the inner beauty of a good tune.

On “Unchained” his selection talents are on full display. On some of these later records, he selects songs that may be great songs in their own right, but sound clunky when sung by Cash. They are great songs, but not always great for him. “Unchained” doesn’t have any true clunkers. The closest he comes is covering Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made Of This” and even that has a nice swing to it – the kind of cover you could see people swaying to in the common room of a retirement home on dance night.

Other than that, “Unchained” is a love letter from Cash to the songs that have inspired him through the decades. He drops amazing covers of Don Gibson’s “Sea of Heartbreak” (1961) and Roy Clark’s hit “I Never Picked Cotton.” (1970). And – full disclosure – I had to Google those artists and had never heard of either one. Getting picked up by Johnny in this way is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, your song lives again, but on the other now that song belongs to Cash for ever more. “I Never Picked Cotton” is particularly great. The story of a young and poor man who chooses a life of crime after watching his family wear themselves to the bone at manual labour scraping out a subsistence living.

The album has a host of high points, but none more so than Cash taking on Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage.” Cash has always lived in that tension between his natural tendency toward wild abandon and the desire to be a good man, and to live a just life. Songs like “Rusty Cage” with their combined themes of confinement and rebellion were made for him. All the grunge may be stripped out of the song, but all the nasty remains. Cash spits out Cornell’s words with all the vitriol of the original, with an extra dose of mean old man on the side.

Equally good is his cover of Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents,” a celebration of Cash’s southern roots. Petty’s original feels restless and uncertain, but you can tell Cash’s version of the character is more at peace with the same itinerant and worn out character.

Cash often puts his faith at the forefront, and “Unchained” has two great entries. The title track (written by Jude Johnstone in the early oughts) and “Spiritual” (by nineties rock band Spain). I checked out both originals on Youtube and while they were good they couldn’t hold up to the majesty of Cash’s delivery. When Johnny sings a devotional it swallows him whole. He takes you into the belly of the whale where he is clearly overwhelmed by the glory of God. I’m not religious, but you don’t have to be to be awed by what Cash is feeling in these moments.

I recently bought a couple of Cash’s records from the fifties and sixties, during his first run at fame. They are brilliant but “Unchained” stands equal beside them, a fitting legacy to one of music’s great icons.

Best tracks: Sea of Heartbreak, Rusty Cage, Spiritual, Southern Accents, Mean Eyed Cat, I Never Picked Cotton, Unchained

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