Johnny Cash – Unearthed
A while ago I mentioned the box-set Unearthed in the comments for my review of Johnny Cash’s fourth American Recordings-album The Man Comes Around, and I think it’s about time that I review this outstanding edition – and it seems right to be reviewing Unearthed today of all days, since Johnny Cash would have turned 75 on this day, February 26 2007.
The album consists of all of five CDs; the first three containing songs that Johnny Cash recorded and produced with Rick Rubin but which were not included on the American Recordings, the fourth contains a collection of Cash’s recordings of songs from his mother’s old Heavenly Highway Hymnbook, the fifth is a highlights-CD with Rick Rubin’s estimate of the best of the first four American Recordings (number 5, A Hundred Highways, was only released after Unearthed), and in the box-set is included a booklet containing interviews with Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin and commentary for the tracks on the first three CDs.
I am completely floored by the album, and particularly the first three albums are a source of immense awe on my part. The American Recordings are in and of themselves incredible: Five whole CDs of covers and original songs, and hardly with one dull track among them, but then to be able to fill three full CDs with almost as big a repertoire of covers and originals…! Unbelievable. I hardly even know whether to laugh or cry about it. Surely this collection of discarded tracks, if nothing had before, bears witness to the fact that Johnny Cash and producer Rick Rubin were a match made in heaven, and, even more, to the fact that Johnny Cash was a larger-than-life artist of whom this world was robbed much too early. It’s almost unbearable to consider the works of art that could have flown from Johnny’s vocals and guitar-strings and Heavenly Highway Records.
But I won’t think of that. Instead I’ll rejoice at this evidence of incredible productivity on Cash’s part while he was still alive, and enjoy the numerous wonderful tracks on these three CDs of initially discarded American recordings. Because they are indeed enjoyable. Cash’s cover version of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” is my favourite of the tracks. A melancholy, solemn tune which lends strength from Cash’s sensitivity as a singer, and, I’ll venture, from the vulnerability that crept into his singing voice during his last years, it easily competes with equally beautiful cover versions from the actual American Recordings, such as “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” from The Man Comes Around. There are quite a few of these solemn songs included on Unearthed that seem to relate in someway to America as native soil. In the case of “Wichita Lineman” the theme is touched upon lightly, yet with some insistence through the specific-geographical proper name in the title, and the solemnity in the tune that adds to the lyrics an air of mythology: “I am a lineman for the county./And I drive the mainroad./Lookin’ in the sun for another overload./I hear you singing in the wire./I can hear you thru the whine./And the Wichita Lineman,/is still on the line.” As if the lineman here is a kind of latter-day, bureaucratized lone rider, standing as he does between two states and reaching out and longing to belong in either of them, to love unconditionally and to be loved. Beautiful.
A much more direct approach to the theme of America is found on Unearthed in songs like the cover versions of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” (sung as a duet with Joe Strummer) and Neil Young’s “Pocahontas”. The two are, each in their own way, surprising tracks in as much as they are quite far from being typical Cash-style songs; the former being decidedly reggae, right down to the lyrics (“Old pirates, yes, they rob I;/Sold I to the merchant ships,/Minutes after they took I/From the bottomless pit.”, and the latter being unusually psychedelic for Cash. But they both work really well. Cash has plenty enough revolutionary spirit (as proven at his prison concerts earlier in his career) to match Bob Marley, and plenty enough visionary imagination to pull off the spaced-out Neil Young-lyrics, and, as Rick Rubin notes in the written commentary for the song; it adds something really wonderful to the Pocahontas-Marlon Brando-meeting motif when Johnny Cash, himself an American icon, is the one singing it: “And maybe Marlon Brando/Will be there by the fire/We’ll sit and talk of Hollywood/And the good things there for hire/And the Astrodome/and the first tepee/Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me.”
Equally successful tracks are the Kris Kristoffersen cover versions featured on the album, “Casey’s Last Ride” and “Just the Other Side of Nowhere”. Both of these melodic, subtly tragic little epics seem to revolve around the theme of the corruption and coldness of the city as opposed, supposedly, to the genuineness and friendliness of the rural. Such a distinction tends towards the contrived, and it seems somewhat out of place for Cash who I think had plenty of urban energy in his rock’n roll sound, but Kristoffersen’s musicality and sense of rhythm is undeniable, and Cash does a great job of depicting in his interprestation a resigned frustration on behalf of Kristoffersen’s protagonists, recalling his sympathetic approach towards outlaws as seen in songs like “San Quentin”. However, Cash’s best homage to his own country background is of course found in his folk ballads and the album has some very good songs of that genre. The best of these is the first track of the first CD “Long Black Veil”. Cash has recorded it before, but this is one of those songs that wins something by getting repeated by the older Cash – his aged, slightly shaky voice with its significant vibrato makes the sinister, ghostly retrospective all the more effective. In another featured folk-song, Cash is every bit as cheerful and humorous-harking as he was sinister and ghostly in the before-mentioned, namely “Cindy” in which we are also treated to another duet between Cash and Nick Cave (their first duet being “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” which was included on The Man Comes Around). It’s a completely bizarre lovesong (“Cindy is my honey/the sweetest in the South/when we kissed the bees would always/swarm around her mouth”!) and Nick Cave’s strange, sneering vocal compliments both Cash’s fatherly baritone and this bizarreness beautifully, in a way that doesn’t allow you to forget that these are respectively the murderers of Eliza Day and Delia joining each other in a serenade…! As much as Unearthed is a rock album it is, however, a kind of museal artefact, a documentation of the work-in-progress of an American legend, and there are tracks on the album where this aspect is particularly evident. There is a track on the first CD titled “Book Review” on the first CD that features John’s voice, incidentally caught by a microphone, as he shares with Rick Rubin his thoughts on a Kahlil Gibran novel he’d just read, and on the third CD, even more interesting, an early and somewhat bland version of “The Man Comes Around” before Cash and Rick Rubin had worked out the lustrous, explosive orchestration that we find in the brilliant final version on American Recordings IV. These are marvellous little pieces of insider-knowledge for any fan of Cash – but of course, being, as they are essentially, curiosities, they do end up being the tracks one is most likely to skip past when listening to the album.
I am sad to admit that this is how I tend to feel about the entire fourth CD, My Mother’s Hymnbook, as well. The CD features John doing simple versions of his childhood hymns (vocal and guitar), and while I am touched by this simplicity and by the faithful sincerity that I don’t doubt that he put into the recording of the hymns, (I fondly imagine the young JR humming them along with his mother while working himself to the bone in the cotton fields), fact remains that the hymns don’t really touch me, and I tend to skip the CD altogether. I think Cash always expressed his passion as a devout Christian much more efficiently when he combining it with the rawness and complexity of rock songs rather than when adding to it the sweetness of hymns. “Old Chunk of Coal” with its rough imagery, and “Bird on a Wire” with its painful portrait of a Christian like an adolescent child, struggling to be obedient and to break free at the same time, are much more successful musical testimonies of Cash’s religious beliefs in my opinion, and both are to be found Unearthed (on CDs 1 and 2, respectively).
I’ve borrowed Unearthed from the public library, but I’m so in love with it that I’ll have to purchase it somehow. I advise every Cash-fan out there to do the same. The album is fantastic, and the accompanying booklet of interviews and commentaries are as informative as any lengthy biography. Unearthed, this glorious American Recordings-flea market is a wonderful celebration of an over-brimming, inspired artist.
Happy Birthday, John.
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