You just don’t want to argue with Johnny Cash. Forty-odd years into his career, the man’s still possessed of a voice that can turn a second rate song into a stone winner, and that can make rolling thunder out of a good one. With a body of work behind him that reaches to the very edge of the rock ‘n’ roll era, he can cover Beck and Soundgarden songs and stuff them right in his pockets. If anyone’s a star for the ages, this man is — no matter what sort of tinhorn hat acts have been issuing forth from Nashville these past few seasons, any new Johnny Cash album goes a long way toward making country-western cool again.
But then, it’s easier to argue with Rick Rubin, who produced both “Unchained” and Cash’s 1993 Grammy winner “American Recordings.” Rubin has an indisputable talent for wringing the best possible performances out of the artists he works with, and for pushing flattened-out careers over the brink of stardom. Under his guidance, the Chili Peppers went from sales of a half-million or so to quintuple platinum. He pushed the Beastie Boys onto the charts. He worked wonders with Slayer, and with The Cult. But opinion is divided as to whether his records have ever sounded good.
The standard Rubin production doesn’t bear up well under deep listening: sometimes the sound can be weirdly unsatisfying, as though there’s an instrument missing from the mix — except they’re all perfectly audible when you check for them. Other times a mix will seem cluttered, even though there are only a few instruments in it. The benefits of his work are that it sounds big and bold, and for Slayer and the Chili Peppers that was a panacea. But for Johnny Cash? That depends on whether you think having Johnny Cash do a modern rock album would be a splendid or a terrible thing. “American Recordings” avoided the issue because there was very little production to it. The album began as a solo acoustic demo, and made its way to the racks almost unaltered. But in its wake, great things were whispered about the follow-up. The next Johnny Cash record was going to be a breakthrough, for well or ill.
It’s not. It’s a wonderful but flat-sounding country album. Even though Cash still has his voice, he’s almost 65 years old, and the stark, digital vocal recording on “Unchained” doesn’t work in his favor. The instrumentation is a couple steps towards interesting — Dylanesque organ and effect-treated guitars turn up here and there, courtesy of Tom Petty and assorted Heartbreakers, but nothing makes a very strong showing. In one of those weird Rubin details, all of the instruments sound softer than all of the rest, and even though such distinguished oddballs as Flea and Lindsey Buckingham do guest shots, the playing is almost uniformly unassertive.
The real draw here isn’t the sound of the
album: It’s the singer and the songs.
Besides the Beck (“Rowboat”) and
Soundgarden (“Rusty Cage”) covers, each
of which Cash plays straight and nails to
the floor left-handed, there are the
country standards “Sea of Heartbreak” and
“I Never Picked Cotton,” and three
top-flight Cash originals, “Country Boy,”
“Mean Eyed Cat,” and “Meet Me In Heaven.”
Even the throwaways, like the formula
country-novelty number “I’ve Been
Everywhere,” come off as gems. If T-Bone
Burnett could’ve gotten his hands on this
project, it might’ve been a landmark. As it
is, it’s merely essential.