Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Music Review: 'Out Among the Stars' by Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash’s 'Out Among the Stars', the crooner’s latest dispatch from beyond the grave, reminds us of an era of country long gone

March 24, 2014


In 2002, Johnny Cash released American IV, with its haunting covers of Martin Gore’s Personal Jesus, Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and especially Trent Reznor’s Hurt, which came packaged with a video that acted over the following months as a self-eulogy for Cash, who would die the following year, shortly after his wife, June Carter.
That video and song, and the acclaim it received, also ensured that the “philosopher-prince of American country music” would see his torch passed to a younger fan base, too. Suddenly (and the process went on till at least the release of the acclaimed Walk the Line biopic in 2005) it weighed heavy on the American pop cultural consciousness across the board just how much this flawed Baptist crooner — he of deep crevices in his face, and even deeper ones in his voice, having lived a contradictory life that oscillated between the sacred and profane — represented a certain universal mirror of the American experience. Life after Cash (he’d left behind an incredible amount of material in his final years and even just months) meant reckoning always with his washed out self and the ultimate image of loneliness he’d seared on us at the end of his life. Those pre-death punches to the existential gut were followed by two (American V and VI) posthumous ones that largely failed to add anything to Cash’s legacy, and may have, in the most cynical sense, cheapened it.  
Which is probably why it is so exciting, liberating and downright joyous to hear the Man in Black being anything but funereal on the posthumous studio album Out Among the Stars, a different sort of album-after-death — this one coming as if from an archeological dig into the much-loved singer’s recording past.
Culled from lost 1980s sessions with legendary country producer Billy Sherrill — famous for his work with both George Jones and Tammy Wynette (he co-wrote Stand By Your Man with her) and credited with creating country’s version of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” — these 12 tracks are a snapshot of Cash still riding high, in 1981 and 1984, after his induction in the Country Music Hall of Fame as its youngest living member, but before he’d join Waylon Jennings (who appears here singing alongside Cash on one of the best tracks, I’m Movin’ On) for heart surgery in 1988. If this was truly the time when Cash felt “invisible” because his record label, Columbia, was ignoring him, then it surely wasn’t because Cash himself wasn’t busy — and some of what Cash’s son with June, John Carter, has uncovered here are true Johnny Cash gems. Others? Not so much.
I Drove Her Out of My Mind for instance, for all its silly, bouncy, Baptist beat, includes that common lyrical strain of nasty teeth-knashing misogyny that often popped up in Cash’s other murder ballads (it’s not as bad as Cocaine Blues, or Delia’s Gone, but in some senses the sentiment is more insidious as he attempts to hide his hate behind self-improvement). And yeah, sure, Cash didn’t write most of these lyrics, but the vocal gravitas he always brought to violence against women, normalizing it as simply a necessary narrative evil of country music, is surely still open to criticism and condemnation here, no less so because he’s dead.
There’s plenty to love, though, among the warts. Tennessee is Cash at his sweetest, Baptist best, writing a letter to his mom about how wonderful life is, bursting into a chorus where he and his “blue-eyed girl” head to the county fair with their “taters they sell by the pound” getting “naturally high” chopping wood. Rock and Roll Shoes is the kind of track that reminds you Cash cut his teeth at Sun Records around the same time as a fella named Presley. And She Used to Love Me A Lot, the album’s single, for all its maudlin, pained regret at a love lost, is classic Cash — being rejected, but taking it like a man, standing up, singing, and letting her go:
“This memory that I’ve had / It’s more good than bad,” Cash croons on the next song, the slinky and earnest After All — and that’s easily what fans and newcomers alike have here: A rough country gem, transported without adornment from a lost set of moments in the 1980s.

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