The four albums that Johnny Cash recorded with Rick Rubin (1994’s American Recordings, 1996’s Unchained, 2000’s Solitary Man, 2002’s The Man Comes Around) saw the essential core of Cash’s muse excavated to create music of dark vitality and purging beauty. Flawless they were not. But, considering the fact that Cash was seriously considering full retirement from the recording studio in the early ’90s, his quartet of American Recordings amounted to something like a miraculously unexpected final act.
Now for the epilogue. A sumptuous five-CD box set, complete with burglar-stunning clothbound book, offering up no less than 79 songs including 64 of the never-before-heard variety. Which brings us to the first quibble of the morning. Entitled “Best Of Cash On America”, CD5 presents 15 tracks plucked from the four previous Rubin-produced albums. Assuming anyone willing to part with hard-earned for this box will already be familiar with these songs, their inclusion here is somewhat mystifying. Then there’s the selection itself. The underwhelming “Bird On A Wire” and the marginally mawkish “We’ll Meet Again” hardly rank among the most unmissable of Cash’s later work. Then there’s no “Before My Time”, “The Beast In Me” or “Oh Bury Me Not”. With Cash’s last album proper, American V, lined up for a 2004 release, it might have been more expedient to have sat tight, seen to the final mixing, and included that here.
Now for the rest. CD1, “Who’s Gonna Cry”, is Cash stripped to the last clean-picked bone. Eighteen songs of skeletal guitar and voice as solemn as a slate gravestone, so unrelentingly mournful that I challenge anyone to take them in a single sitting. At their very best (the sepulchred regret of “Long Black Veil”, the lilting loveliness of “Dark As A Dungeon”, a wonderfully spartan “Down By The Train”), you feel like you’re right there, at Cash’s feet, as he mines ripe beauty from the loam of tender fear and resolute resignedness. On the bulk of these opening tracks, however, he sounds so perilously frail, his voice so shambolically unsteady, that you feel like an unwanted intruder as the great man strains in vain to find the right note.
CD2 is equally hit-and-miss. Backfired collaborations with Tom Petty and Carl Perkins, and creaking cover versions of Dolly Parton’s “I’m A Drifter” and Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”. These are redeemed by a profoundly eerie take on Neil Young’s “Pocahontas”, an uplifting duet with wife June on “As Long As”, and the understated drift of “Drive On”.
The sterling gold is to be found on CDs 3 and 4. The third, “Redemption Songs”, offers us the much-talked-about collaboration with Joe Strummer on Marley’s “Redemption Song”, teams Cash with Fiona Apple on a torched version of Cat Stevens’ “Father And Son”, and finds Nick Cave in mirthful form on the cornball country of “Cindy”. Then there’s Cash’s radical reworkings of “Wichita Lineman” and “Gentle On My Mind”, a rumbling storm of self-regret.
Leaving only the 15 spirituals on “My Mother’s Hymn Book”?the most compelling volume of all. You don’t need to have faith in God to be moved by Cash singing “Never Grow Old” or “If We Never Meet Again This Side Of Heaven”. Only faith in Cash’s ability to convey godlike grace with the slightest turn and twist of his life-worn vocal, his genius for making every line ring resonant with the truth of ages.