The combination of Country legend Johnny Cash and hit producer Rick Rubin could not have been a bigger success during the release of Cash’s comeback album, American Recording. The duo managed to transform a selection of heart felt numbers into chilling broken down moments of genius. The album’s cross over appeal and simplistic structure put the Man in Black back into the American mainstream, which could not have been odder; a traditional Country artist appealing to fans of artists like Nirvana and Soundgarden? Strangely enough, those kinds of kids did buy and apparently enjoy Cash’s latest release, and the expectations for a follow up were high. A worthy follow up to an acclaimed masterpiece would most definitely be hard to make, but that very idea did not stop Cash and Rubin, of course. Together, Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash would create an album worthy of the highest rating and one that would even challenge his greatest achievements.
To begin with, the team would bring new ideas to the forefront, ditch recently used ideas, and revive old methods. The all acoustic Folk sound would not be used. Rubin would set Cash up with a whole band (The Heartbreakers), just like in his earlier days. Along with practically leaving the acoustic set up in the dust, Cash would nearly abandon original sound writing; covers were the name of the game now. Artists such as Soundgarden (“Rusty Cage“), Tom Petty (“Southern Accents") and Beck (“Rowboat") would make their way into the track list, and provide Cash with a basis to work off of. Although covers are predominating, Cash does manage to bless the album with four originals that are certainly fantastic to hear.
Though uniqueness and originality play a large role Unchained, it is of course Johnny Cash (his playing and his singing) that make the album. His enthusiasm, expression and attitude even in songs he did not write and believable and shine through the album more than anything else. Whether it’s the melancholy attitude present in the hard broken “Rowboat" or the cocky demeanor used in the fabulous “I’ve Been Everywhere", Cash’s assorted personalities are amusing and make each and every song; with out them, Unchained is pointless.
Throughout Unchained, Johnny Cash plays around with a variety of interesting and expressive topics, some that are very personal, and others that just make great songs. One way or another, no topic upsets or offends, if anything, some of the topics may bring a new liking to Cash. One being spirituality and religion. In the beautiful religious and spiritual tracks “Spiritual", “Unchained", “The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea" and “Meet Me in Heaven", Cash sings about a topic that seems to have been very important in the later years of his life - Christianity. He sings these songs with complete faith and love in the messiah and His great plan, even during a narrative song. Personally, these songs greatly interest me; I myself share the same faith as Mr. Cash.
Alongside religion and spirituality, Cash presents a variety of wonderful love songs; some regarding heart break, others regarding new found love. The heart break love songs and just negative concepts out number the fresh love songs with tracks like “Rowboat", “Rusty Cage", “Sea of Heartbreak" and “The One’s Rose", but of course, that sets the album back in no way. “Memories are Made of This" bring the listener to a more positive stand point; the pleasant pop tune really makes up for the lack of positive concepts rather nicely.
Finally, Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin include some fast upbeat tunes that really complete the album fantastically. The first, entitled “Country Boy", is just generally a fun song. With fast lyrics, a simple topic and some nice instrumental work it satisfies greatly. “Mean Eyed Cat" is quite similar; very upbeat with a distinctive attitude. The concept is simple, but I spot no flaws, and am certainly not unsatisfied with it. “I Never Picked Cotton" is also a tune that can fit the previous descriptions, but isn’t that similar. This twelfth track has a blues feel to it, and the melody is very infectious, as are the lyrics. The albums greatest highlight also does not fall in a love or depressive category. “I’ve Been Everywhere" closes the album amazingly good. With its rapidly sung lyrics and Johnny’s cocky attitude, it out does most Cash songs. The melody and instrumental combination is very catchy; much credit goes to the Heartbreakers.
Well, most would not say that Unchained is one of Johnny Cash’s and Rick Rubin’s best pieces of work. Hell, most critics didn’t even show a liking for it. None the less, from what I heard, Unchained can stand with the best of them (including At Folsom Prison) and is arguably, Johnny Cash’s greatest musical achievement ever. And that is certainly a big deal for such and amazing artist and person that Johnny Cash was.