Just when his myth was in danger of being destroyed by too many mediocre albums--and too many wonderful albums underpublicized by uncaring labels and ignored by country radio--Johnny Cash was rescued from the country-music trash heap and restored to the sort of honorary status afforded those rare musicians who survive, much less prosper, in middle age. Sounding like the devil's own kin on 1994's Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings, Cash sang of retribution and redemption; he asked God to wash the blood off his calloused hands as he strode through a decimated land with nothing but his guitar and his demon dogs to keep him company.
American Recordings may not have sold well, it may not have gotten John R. Cash back on country radio or wiped clean the memory of those run-of-the-mill Highwaymen recordings, but it served a more important purpose: It proved Cash was more than a mere icon--not a vestige of another era clinging to state-fair stages and hall-of-fame banquets, but a viable performer whose age only served to inform and deepen his modern-day output.
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That said, Cash's voice hasn't really changed in decades: His delivery is still mournful and threatening, even when he sings of such mundane things as pet food and Southern accents. His persona still puts over even the weakest material, and he still relies on others to make his choices for him. Unchained is not the intimate, unexpected masterpiece that American Recordings was two years ago--nor is it the gem that the bootlegged American Outtakes is, another 15 songs (including "I Witnessed a Crime" with Billy Gibbons) recorded three years ago in Rubin's living room and kept in the vault. Rather, it exists somewhere between his best modern albums--(Gone Girl, Water From the Wells of Home, American Recordings)--and the most pedestrian (The Baron, The Mystery of Life, Patriot) between living up to the myth and surrendering to it.
The song choices this time around make less sense: Cash's cover of Beck's "Rowboat" seems to exist for the purpose of lookee-here novelty. "Memories Are Made of This" lacks the resonance it should have had, and "Sea of Heartbreak" is so lightweight it threatens to float off the disc. With Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers--and, at times, Flea, Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood--behind him, Cash sounds more playful than he did last time around; no doubt it was more fun to record with a band, especially one as worshipful as this pro lot. But lost are the immediacy and explicitness of American Recordings, the sense that Cash had this music brewing inside him and would explode without an outlet.
When he covered Nick Lowe's "The Beast in Me" last time out--or, for that matter, the Stones' "No Expectations" or Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman" years ago--Cash seized other men's words and melodies and made them his own personal anthems: There was no question he was that beast on American Recordings, the man struggling to keep in check his darkest impulses. But when he sings Beck's dopey love song or Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage," he performs them as though they were songs someone handed to him and told him he ought to sing because they'd make him hip. He doesn't inhabit the words, he merely recites them in that familiar growl, and that just isn't enough anymore.
There's some pleasure to be found in the fact that he can still rock like a sumbitch: His own "Mean Eyed Cat" recalls his days as a Sun Records rebel, the only guy as scary as Jerry Lee Lewis. And the title track hints at the retrospection that made 1978's Gone Girl his finest album since the early '60s: "I know I am vain/Take this weight from me/Let my spirit be unchained," he sings, his voice like a lost ghost wandering through a dark graveyard. "Old man, swearin' at the sidewalk/I'm overcome/Seems that we've both forgotten, forgotten to go home." The arrangement is sparse, strings and piano, and the song just ends--no fade-out, just a period. Too bad, then, Rubin ends the album with the rockabilly travelogue "I've Been Everywhere," a throwaway in which Cash reads off a few hundred points on a map like he's in a race against time. But the only thing chasing Cash is himself.