A lot of people talk about how less can be more, but few have ever demonstrated the principle as clearly as Johnny Cash and producer Rick Rubin do on Cash's new album, "American Recordings" (American 45520, arriving in stores today).
Musically, the sound of "American Recordings" is as basic as can be -- just Cash and his guitar, with no sidemen or studio trickery. Heck, there wasn't even a studio; most of the album was cut in Rubin's living room, with the rest recorded either at Cash's cabin or live at the Viper Room in Los Angeles. Flashy it ain't.
That may come as a surprise, given that "American Recordings" marks the first time Cash has worked outside the country music establishment since his days with Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun. In fact, when it was first announced that Cash would be working with Rubin -- a man whose previous production credits include such non-Nashville talent as Slayer, the Cult, L.L. Cool J and the Red Hot Chili Peppers -- most in the business predicted something along the lines of "The Wanderer," Cash's recent collaboration with U2.
Yet it would be hard to imagine a more appropriate approach than the voice-and-guitar strategy applied here. What Cash brings to these songs is personality, a sense of voice that turns these songs into well-told stories.
Moreover, by keeping the focus squarely on Cash's voice, Rubin's production makes the music so intimate and immediate that it's as if Cash were speaking to each listener personally.
And considering the kind of material Cash offers here, that personal touch makes a world of difference.
Take "Delia's Gone," for example. With its well-worn country cadences and casual "Delia's gone, one more round/Delia's gone" chorus, it has the shape and style of a classic broken-hearted ballad. But as the lyric unfolds, it becomes clear that Cash's protagonist didn't quite lose his woman. "First time I shot her, I shot her in the side," he sings.
Hard to watch her suffer
But with the second shot she died
Delia's gone, one more round
A lesser singer might play the song for laughs, but there's no comedy in Cash's rendition. Instead, what we get is the same matter-of-fact delivery Cash used 38 years ago as he sang "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" in "Folsom Prison Blues." No wonder "Delia's Gone" is just as scary, just as tragic and just as riveting.
There are plenty more dark moments on "American Recordings," from the born-loser ballad "Thirteen" (a song written, oddly enough, by heavy metal singer Glenn Danzig) to the Jekyll-and-Hyde number "The Beast in Me." Of course, for every hymn of despair there's also a song of salvation, like the dark, mystical "Redemption" or Tom Waits' wry, gospel-tinged "Down There By the Train."
Still, the best songs on "American Recordings" manage to convey a little of both. "Bury Me Not," for instance, plays heavily on the spiritual as it invokes a cowboy's thanks to the Lord and dying wish that he not be buried on the "lone prairie." But it ends on a note of frontier pragmatism as the dead cowpoke's buddies leave him on the prairie "in a shallow grave, just six by three."
It's not an easy ending, but it's a memorable one -- precisely what you'd expect from the Man in Black.
CALLING FOR CASH
To hear excerpts of Johnny Cash's "American Recordings," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6135 after you hear the greeting.