For an America sunk in spring snow, new Johnny Cash is welcome warmth. Most of the 12 once-cached songs in this collection were recorded in 1984, the year Van Halen invited the world to “Jump,” Arnold Schwarzenegger became The Terminator, and David Mamet satirized American greed in Glengarry Glen Ross. A lesser artist might not have survived the trip to the 21st century. But Cash’s album of previously unreleased tracks is thematically tuned to universal dilemmas. It’s another shade of black for fans to ponder.
The title song, the album opener, is tailor-made for the Man in Black. It memorializes a Texas boy who turns to crime for want of a job, all the time daydreaming of a better life “out among the stars.” For the final chorus, Cash’s voice overflows with the spirit of empathy.
“Baby Ride Easy,” a duet between Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, is a light ode to fun and love on the road, rendered substantial by the real romance between its singers.
“She Used to Love Me A Lot,” like “Out Among the Stars,” promises tragedy but resolves on an energetic note of redemption. Johnny Cash’s son John Carter, who collected the tracks in Out Among the Stars, remarks in the liner notes that his father “was of perfect voice, content, and of hopeful heart” while recording these songs.
Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings’s duet on “Movin’ On” rocks and rolls but the middle of the album mostly meanders. The countryside idylls of “Tennessee” are reminiscent of “Country Boy,” a stronger, early work in Cash’s career.
“Rock and Roll Shoes” features Cash at his lyrical best, holding long vowel sounds till they become omens. “Guitars and ringing tones,” he sings, “In my blood and in my bones.”
The final track, “I Came to Believe,” penned by Cash himself, offers gospel with gentleness and humility. It goes down like a cup of hot soup in winter.
Out Among the Stars presents the American music legend “at a true prime,” according to son John Carter Cash. “When these recordings were made he was as full of passion and love as any other time in his life.”
Cash sings of his own end on Out Among the Stars:
On a lonely day
When they put me in my grave
Ain’t a worry you need to save
Just hang up my rock and roll shoes
The Cash family, however, may release more albums of unopened vintages. Johnny Cash’s music continues to cross cultural borders. He speaks to all latitudes.