When Johnny Cash died last September, he had already recorded at least 50 songs for American V, the next album in the highly acclaimed series he began in 1994 with producer Rick Rubin. In Cash’s absence, that album will be released in much the same fashion as its predecessors — the dozens of tracks will be evaluated and a select sample will make the final cut. Rubin and Cash accumulated a huge backlog of unreleased work, and before Cash’s death they decided to release Unearthed to commemorate their first decade together. They both hoped there would be much more ahead.
Its uncomfortable title aside, Unearthed is that rare boxed collection that lives up to its size and grandeur. One reason it does is that so many songs are covers. This is not to say that Cash was not a terrific songwriter. One of his last songs, “When the Man Comes Around,” a hair-raising vision of Armageddon, is as mighty as “Folsom Prison Blues.” But Cash’s career was built as firmly on interpretation as composition. Most young pop artists record their own material almost exclusively; only collectors are interested in boxed sets that offer numbing alternate takes of songs we know too well. But when an artist is pillaging the catalogue of American music and ranging far beyond his original inspirations, gems lurk in unlikely places.
For those familiar with the Cash/Rubin collaboration for the American label, that is part of the fun of Unearthed — measuring its songs against the ones that made the cut. Inevitably this is a subjective enterprise, but how could songs like “If I Give My Soul,” “No Earthly Good,” “Big Iron,” and “Singer of Songs” be left out in the cold? It’s not as if Americans I – IV didn’t have their share of clunkers, either. The irony is that there are fewer clunkers on the whole of Unearthed than on the official albums.
IF THERE’S ONE SONG here that should be beyond debate, it is Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Chunk of Coal,” a timeless expression of the quest to be redeemed. The song’s metaphor starts in a familiar material world — Cash knew a bit about coal — and effortlessly works its way upward to the heavens:
I’m just an old chunk of coal
But I’m gonna be a diamond someday
I’m gonna grow and glow
Till I’m so blue pure perfect
I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face
But I’m gonna kneel and pray every day
Lest I should become vain along the way
I’m just an old chunk of coal, now Lord
But I’m gonna be a diamond someday.
“Old Chunk of Coal” is also a fitting tribute to Cash’s art over 50 years. Time and again, he took his plain baritone and spare guitar work into the recording mine and emerged with one shimmering creation after another.
Not everything on Unearthed works as well, although even the misses tend to be interesting. A rendition of Neil Young’s incoherent “Pocahontas” sounds like it was recorded on Haight-Asbury. It is a ridiculous song by an overrated songwriter, but Cash compensates with a knowing baritone that almost seems to wink at the absurdity. The set wastes space on several re-dos of Cash classics like “Long Black Veil” that were better left undisturbed. The duets are hit and miss. Neither Fiona Apple nor Glen Campbell is well served on “Father and Son” and “Gentle on My Mind.” Their vocals float in and out of the mix. It sounds less like they are singing than muttering under their breath.
ON THE OTHER HAND, at least two duets are near sublime: “Redemption Song” with former Clash frontman Joe Strummer and “Cindy” with the eclectic Nick Cave. The first is a rendition of the Bob Marley classic that achieves special poignancy due to the demise of both men not long afterwards, and to the camaraderie their voices achieve. They sing as if inside a church adjoining a tavern. The latter, an old country standard, plucks and twangs away with great humor, one of the lightest and most pleasurable tracks Cash recorded in many years. It’s guaranteed to make Red State Americans tap their feet and urban hipsters run for cover, desirable effects in their own right.
An entire CD is devoted to “My Mother’s Hymn Book,” 15 acoustic renditions of standards like “I Shall Not Be Moved,” “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.” It is the most consistent disk in the box and surpasses Cash’s previous gospel work in depth and power. The disc should remind listeners that Cash cannot be defined in one hue: he was always The Man in Black and White. Of course, there is a certain humor to assigning one disk to Cash’s “religious” songs, as if the almighty doesn’t lurk around the corner in most others as well. It reminds me of when I heard of Ingmar Bergman’s “Religious Trilogy” of films and asked a friend, “Only three?”
Cash recorded at least 100 songs for his first American album alone, so even with Unearthed we haven’t come close to hearing them all. And then there are the outtakes for whatever is left off of American V. Could there be an Exhumed in our future? Judging from the evidence here, I can only say in words that I know John Kerry understands: Bring…it…on!
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