Johnny Cash - American II: Unchained
Following on from American Recordings and finding, in as much as Rick Rubin thought it would so happen, that there was an audience for Cash singing the songs he wanted to in a style that suited him, the country star and hip-hop/rock producer reconvened at the former's home to record their follow-up.
This time around, however, Rubin, having been stung by criticisms of the bone-dry sound, called in favours and built up the sound with layers of guitars, percussion, bass and warm keyboards supplied by, amongst others, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Lindsay Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood and Flea. With a full band behind him, there must have been a terrific sound rolling out of Cash's Tennessee home and where American II: Unchained stands out is the way it captures this supple, rippling mix of religion, romance and cold-blooded murder.
Opening with a cover of Beck's Rowboat, lifted from the folky and little-known One Foot In The Grave, Cash's version leaves the dry folk of the original behind for a rolling, muscular rock song, complete with flashes of rich guitar pumped through a Leslie rotating speaker. With Cash putting his life into Beck's words, themselves often written as pastiche, including, "Dog food on the floor / And I've been like this before", Rowboat signals Unchained's intention to bring Cash's whole personality into the music.
With Rowboat over, Cash's broad voice eases into Paul Hampton and Hal David's big country ballad Sea Of Heartbreak before hitting Soundgarden's Rusty Cage hard, including a badly handled break between an acoustic opening half and a distorted rock ending. Much better are the tender The One Rose (That's Left In My Heart) and Memories Are Made Of This, with the former offering a crackly slide guitar whilst the latter brings a dainty acoustic guitar and a truth and honesty to a song that had been previously married, this side of the Atlantic at least, to Max Bygraves and grim Saturday night light entertainment. Between these two, Cash's own Country Boy - a gruff rockabilly stomper - gives Unchained a chance to collect itself before the barroom worship of Spiritual.
With this song, Cash allows it to open at a funereal pace but he and Rubin allow it to gradually soar with the verse-by-verse addition of mandolin and chiming electric guitars, over which Cash's voice repeats the simple lyrics with such feeling that his faith is never in doubt. Given its place on the album and its themes, Spiritual gets Cash ready for the darker themes of I See A Darkness and The Mercy Seat from American III: Solitary Man.
With the Carter family's The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea up next, the theme of which will already be sufficiently familiar to Cash's fans that it could have been written for him, the album continues with Tom Petty's clunky Southern Accents, itself similar to the later I Never Picked Cotton, both of which recall Cash's much earlier Daddy Sang Bass, before the singer's own Mean Eyed Cat and stately Meet Me In Heaven. Skipping Unchained, it is left to the scattershot I've Been Everywhere to close the album, much as The Man Who Couldn't Cry brought this album's predecessor to an end.
With The Heartbreakers in place, Unchained is a fine partner to American Recordings, adding a stronger sound but offering a slightly less impressive set of songs. What this album did achieve, however, was the connection between the raw American Recordings and the later American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around, wherein Rubin's production, the performances of session musicians and Cash's own singing, writing and selection of songs come together to justify Cash's reputation as a legend.
Finally, just as good as the music are the sleeve notes, written by Cash and showing that his ability to write prose was as good as his writing of music. Opening with a tale of veggie burgers and his smiting of cucumbers, despite his noting that Moses brought them out of Egypt - Numbers 11:5 should you have a copy of the Old Testament to hand - Cash writes with a rich, sunburnt voice about his childhood, his love for his wife June and the songs that either written or selected for the album. In these notes, Cash reveals a bone-dry sense of humour, a deliberate choosing of songs that directly relate to him and, as the sleeve notes end, an awareness of his advancing age and approaching death. Let Cash's own final words be those to end this review - "God's world, in perfect order...May I be in accordance. On my last setting sun."