Everything about Johnny Cash was larger than life, from his deep bass rumblings to his well-publicized sin and redemption high-wire act. He was as iconic a figure as American music ever produced and, given his recent death, it’s probably impossible to view him in a less than mythic light. So it should come as no surprise that Unearthed , the recently released 5-CD boxed set of outtakes and unissued songs from Rick Rubin’s American Recordings albums, is larger than life as well, offering more than could have reasonably been hoped for—64 songs that are not only new but that sound as vital as anything Johnny Cash ever recorded.
Those familiar with Cash’s collaborations over the past 10 years with rap-rock producer Rubin already know what to expect. Using an open-minded approach that borrowed as much from alternative rock as it did from traditional country fare, and employing no-frills production values, Rubin coaxed some of the finest performances Johnny Cash ever delivered, and he did so by simply setting Cash down in front of a microphone and letting him play the music he loved—without all the attendant countrypolitan clutter that marred his albums during the ’70s and ’80s. The four albums they made together—sometimes with just Johnny and his acoustic guitar, sometimes in the company of sympathetic backing musicians such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers—were revelatory, and Johnny Cash put his own unique stamp on songs from Nick Cave and Nine Inch Nails just as surely as he owned the likes of “Ring of Fire” or “I Walk the Line.”
Unearthed features songs of similar quality. Not so much leftovers as alternate takes on the same idiosyncratic musical universe, the 64 new songs here only deepen the Cash mystique. Packaged with an elegant 100-page clothbound book that provides song-by-song commentary from Cash and Rubin, the first three discs (entitled Who’s Gonna Cry, Trouble in Mind, and Redemption Songs) offer unreleased outtakes from the four previous collaborations. The fourth disc, My Mother’s Hymn Book, is an all-new acoustic gospel album. There are delights everywhere—a ragged-but-beautifully-poignant duet with The Clash’s Joe Strummer on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” scintillating covers of songs by Neil Young, Tom Waits, Steve Earle and Roy Orbison, re-recorded, stripped down versions of Cash classics such as “The Long Black Veil” and “Flesh and Blood,” and the entire fourth disc, with its simultaneous focus on the irrepressible hope of faith and the knowledge of Cash’s own impending death.
But mostly there’s that magnificent voice, that force of nature. A few critics groused about Cash’s diminished vocal abilities over the last couple American Recordings albums, but they largely missed the point. Cash’s voice wasn’t just diminished; it was ravaged. It was the sound of a man preparing to die, and it didn’t sound so much lived in any more as lived out—absolutely spent, as harrowing and soulful as Billie Holiday in her last recording sessions in the late ’50s. That’s the voice that hangs in the wind at the end of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” a frail and sorrowful thing, a ruined cathedral still towering in its magnificence. It’s the frayed but indomitable instrument that transforms “We’ll Meet Again” from the purest schmaltz into something that sounds like genuine grief and hope. And it’s what seizes Nick Cave’s astonishing “Mercy Seat” and batters down the gates of heaven. Saint and sinner, Johnny’s here. It’s what made him great until the very end.
So dock a few points for the unnecessary fifth disc, which contains previously released American Recordings material already owned by 90% of the people buying this boxed set. And dock a few more for a couple of the collaborations that fall flat, as in Johnny’s hesitant duet with Fiona Apple on Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son.” It doesn’t matter. What’s left is the voice, and Rick Rubin has unearthed a treasure trove of great recordings to remind us of its magnificence.