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The first four songs on Johnny Cash’s Unchained come from the songbooks of Beck, Don Gibson, Soundgarden, and Jimmie Rodgers. What might look like absurd eclecticism in other artists is, of course, pretty much standard stuff for Cash. And who else is likely to lead with such a quartet?

Unchained is the second record of what the marketing machine has labeled Cash’s “alternative” phase. That’s what signing with Rick Rubin’s label and gigging at the Viper Room gets you. Those whose familiarity with Cash’s 40-plus-year career goes deeper than “A Boy Named Sue” and the myth that he did hard time will hear Unchained for what it is: a natural. And not just because Beck’s “Rowboat” (picked up from the wonder boy’s Stereopathetic Soul Manure) finds him in a shotgun shack begging for booze. Some great songs from smart youth-rockers’ discographies, and Cash is ready for 120 Minutes? Cool. But don’t forget his previous forays into the Stones (“No Expectations”), Springsteen (the Nebraska titles on 1983’s Johnny 99), Costello, Nick Lowe, John Sebastian…oh yeah, and Dylan. Anyway, Johnny’s been punk since the ’80s, at least, when the Mekons headed the lineup of ‘Til Things Are Brighter, one of the earliest and most solid tribute albums. Or the late ’50s, when he and Sammy Davis Jr. engaged in a pistol-shooting competition in the lobby of an Australian hotel.

Working in Cash’s favor on stuff like Gibson’s stellar early-’60s “Sea of Heartbreak”—with a stack of verses by a pre-Bacharach Hal David—and the 120-approved version of Chris Cornell’s “Rusty Cage” are Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, themselves just barely aged enough not to be Cash’s sons. Where the heavily (actually somewhat over-) praised American Recordings suffered a little from its solo-acoustic-or-bust stance, Unchained draws out the finest these backup pros have. Both tasteful and door-rattling, they prove as sympathetic a group for Cash as his own Tennessee Three. The Heartbreakers even help to slightly redefine two of the singer’s Sun Records artifacts, banging like John Henry’s hammer on the freight-train beats of “Country Boy” and “Mean Eyed Cat.” Cash also fleshes out the latter with an extra verse that finds his protagonist bringing back his runaway wife from a new life “workin’ 4 to 12 at Trucker’s World.”

All this adds to Unchained’s fun quotient, a measure American Recordings scored a C+ on at best. Though he has rightly pegged Columbia’s three-CD Essential Johnny Cash 1955-83 as the best, most well-rounded representation of his career, Cash seemed to see American Recordings as something like a chance to top it. While the record stands up OK, its aim of uniting the sinful and redeemed sides of the artist’s character wasn’t matched by the stern stiffness that often issued from its digital bitstream. Gambits like following “Why Me Lord” with a Glenn Danzig-penned horror-flick ode (“Thirteen”) worked better in concept than, er, execution. The heavy-metal troll might just as well have matched the line “Got the number 13 tattooed on my neck” with “You know, that rhymes with go-to-heck.”

The unwise choices didn’t stop there. Cash laying down a Leonard Cohen number was smart, but the hackneyed “Bird on a Wire,” which is almost as unworthy as “Why Me” of its inclusion on the list of postwar classics, wasn’t the right one. Better for Cash to have essayed the deranged tragicomic imagery of “Tower of Song”—in which the wizened Lenny imagines Hank Williams’ sickly cough keeping him awake all night and declares himself the possessor of “a golden voice.”

But for a murderous adaptation of the traditional “Delia’s Gone,” it took a little imagination to receive American Recordings as the work of the man who once delivered himself of lunatic memoirs about an evening in the “Starkville City Jail” and stealing a Cadillac “One Piece at a Time.” You did, though, have to applaud any public Christian willing to acknowledge the possibility, even in character, of later meeting gossips “in the fire”—much less that such a moment might yield a weird, nervy satisfaction.

Denying that Cash sounds about a thousand times looser on Unchained, however, is useless. Even the humbly religious numbers are more idiosyncratic, whether he’s digging into Josh Haden’s inexorable “Spiritual” or joyously harmonizing with Petty on “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea,” a midcentury Carter Sisters original. For younger old-school Cash fans—those of us a couple of years past 30 who can recall Dad spinning the then-new San Quentin concert LP in happy drunkenness—and anyone who can embrace Cash as more than just a bright spark in some marketing guy’s eye, Unchained is bound to be remembered as superior to the previous album in every way.

The assurance with which Cash belts “Rusty Cage,” complete with a pushy take on Kim Thayil’s riffs and midsong tempo change, is just plain damn good music. Good Johnny Cash, too, something that slaps menace and glee and fear together and tells those sons of bitches to get acquainted. It’s kind of like that bit in “Orange Blossom Special” where one sodden hillbilly asks another—Cash—if he’s not worried about missing meals up North. “Ain’t you worried about gettin’ your no’ishment in New York?” “Oh, I don’t care if I do die do die do die…” “Cage” is also something my own father, who escaped the mines of Wise County, Va., to hit the big city of Norfolk to work a warehouse job and smoke himself to death before his 60th birthday, would have appreciated. Even if he might’ve scratched his head at the part about “rainin’ ice picks on your steel shore.”

Like Cash, my dad wouldn’t have puzzled over “Southern Accents,” another trick this Arkansas native picked up from the Florida-born Petty. The title piece of the Heartbreakers’ 1985 rumination on new and old ways, it beats hell out of the stars-and-bars as a statement of regional pride. Especially in Cash’s mouth, which chews on phrases like “that drunk tank in Atlanta was just a motel room to me” and “the young’uns call it country, the Yankees call it dumb.” It makes my mouth water for a Skynyrd cover to go with “Tower of Song.” That, and a cheap fifth.CP