Friday, 20 September 2002

Album Review: Unchained

Unchained is the second in the series of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. On the first album, Cash stuck to fairly traditional fare, performing a set of mostly his own material, and a couple of tracks by his contemporaries like Loudon Wainwright III, Kris Kristofferson and Leonard Cohen. Here Cash’s (and we can only assume producer Rick Rubin’s) choices are far more eclectic. The set list contains works by the likes of Soundgarden, Beck and Tom Petty. Guest spots by artists as diverse as Mick Fleetwood, The Heartbreakers and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea also make this LP more of an assortment than the first offering.

Like its predecessor, Unchained is characterised by Cash’s peerless ability to make each song that he tackles his own. Cash’s own life story and experience add gravity and pathos to lines that seemed almost throwaway when sung by the original artists. This is most poignant, when Cash sings, “Give me some alcohol” on Beck's Rowboat, and later when he brings equal helpings of spirituality and savoir-faire to Soundgarden’s Rusty Cage.

It isn’t just more contemporary songs that Cash performs on Unchained though. He takes Dean Martin’s corny-as-hell Memories Are Made Of This and adds a depth that even Martin couldn’t manage. Later he performs an exquisite version of Tom Petty’s South Accents. On Jimmie Rodgers’ The One Rose (That’s Left In My Heart) and The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea’ (originally performed by The Louvin Brothers but written by June, Helen and Anita Carter) things really snap into place between Cash and The Heartbreakers making these two of the stand out tracks.

Two re-works of Cash’s own songs are also highlights. Meet Me In Heaven, which was originally written for June Carter Cash takes on greater significance now that both she and Cash have passed away. Cash estimates that it took him forty years to write ‘Mean Eyed Cat’. In the liner notes he remarks that any version heard until now cannot be viewed as the finished article, “finally, after 41 years, I’m satisfied with ‘Mean Eyed Cat’” notes Cash.

At the conclusion of the album lies Hank Snow’s tongue-twisting road-dog song, I’ve Been Everywhere. As Cash powers into the chorus, you could sense that he wasn’t done racking up the miles. Sadly, he didn’t have as many left as we all would’ve liked.

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