Friday, February 27, 2009

The Last Testament of Johnny Cash

I can't remember when I first noticed "Unearthed," the 5-CD box set released shortly after Johnny Cash's death in 2003. It might have been a mention in Greil Marcus' "Real Life Rock" column, and it might have been during a perusal of the box set aisle at Best Buy. But one thing was certain - once I knew about it, it was only a matter of time before I bought it.

Well, it took a while. A box set of that size doesn't come cheap, and I can attest through five years of looking that the damn thing never goes on sale. Even today, on it is selling for $71. But eventually the watching paid off, and just after the new year I found a used copy on sale for $49.99, right at the moment when I found myself with one last Christmas gift card to spend.

The set is a magnificent testament to the Johnny Cash-Rick Rubin collaboration. If Rubin had done nothing else in his career, he would deserve to be recognized in rock history for rescuing Cash from the syrup and strings that his latter-day producers seemed bound and determined to force him into. The genius of it all is in its simplicity - I'll let Johnny sing whatever comes to mind, every now and then suggest a song that he probably wouldn't discover on his own, and then back him with the basics. And it worked - through four albums (and one released posthumously), the collaboration clicked, and in the last decade of his life Cash may have recorded more great music than he had in the twenty years before that. It's the kind of treatment that all great artists deserve, and we should all be thankful that it was so successful.

The first three discs are "out-takes" from the American Recordings sessions, but only in the sense that they didn't make it onto whichever album was being recorded at the time. There's not much to distinguish the quality of these songs from the quality of those which did end up on the albums, and in some instances it's surprising that the "Unearthed" songs didn't make the final cut. The first disc is all acoustic, just Johnny and his guitar. There isn't a bad song to be found, but the highlights for me are "Long Black Veil," "Banks of the Ohio," and "I'm Goin' to Memphis."

A good portion of Disc two is comprised of songs recorded with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and you can feel their enthusiasm on every track. As the extensive liner notes make clear, the band was awed and honored to be in the studio with Johnny, and they do themselves proud. In the notes, Petty himself ventures the opinion that the band never played better. Johnny does an admirable job on two Neil Young classics - "Heart of Gold" and "Pocahontas" - but the real highlights are the songs where Carl Perkins plays guest star ("Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby," and "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man") and an incredible duet with June, "As Long As the Grass Shall Grow."

On the third disc, you can really hear the age show up in Johnny's voice - but that just lends the songs more power and poignancy than they otherwise might have had. On "Wichita Lineman," you can hear him straining to hit the high notes, even though the song is played in a lower pitch than Glen Campbell's original. But it was with the later work that Rubin really proved his mettle as a producer. It's nothing fancy, but it's just the way that he uses single notes on the piano, or chords on the guitar, to emphasize Cash's phrasing. My favorite songs on Disc 3 are "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore," "He Stopped Loving Her Today," the aforementioned "Wichita Lineman," and the duet with Joe Strummer, "Redemption Song," about which Greil Marcus wrote:

The weight Cash brings to the very first lines, "Oh pirates, yes they rob I/ Sold I to the merchant ship"-- a physical weight, a moral weight, the weight of age and debilitation -- is so strong it floats the song as if it were itself a ship, sailing no earthly ocean. The reversal of what would be Cash's "me" for Marley's "I" makes a crack in the earth, a man stepping into another time, another place, entering fully into another history. Then Joe Strummer comes in, plainly nervous, rushing the words precisely as he does not on the shivering version of "Redemption Song" on his own posthumous release, Streetcore: He's tight, blank, and the performance never recovers. By the end it's all but dead -- and those first moments will bring you back again and again, trying to make the recording come out differently. Five CDs don't come cheap, but the radio does, and a song like this is what the radio is for: to shock whoever's listening.

The fourth disc is again just Johnny on guitar, singing some of his favorite gospel songs, and it's very powerful - you don't have to be a religious person to enjoy his performances of these classics. The fifth disc is probably the only drawback to the entire enterprise - a "best of" containing songs from the four American Recordings albums. It's mostly a waste, for two reasons: it's highly likely that anyone buying "Unearthed" already owns those albums, and given that, they've quite likely made their own mix-tape of favorites (I know I have). But in the end that's a minor quibble - I can say without reservation that no Cash fan should be without this set in their collection.

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