Album Review: Johnny Cash – Out Among The Stars (2014)

Disclaimer: Back in the early 1990s I learned that I share the same birthday as that of iconic musician Johnny Cash. Through the years I’ve connected in different ways with the contradictions of such a personality, but I’ve also remained unbiased when it comes to critiquing his body of recorded work.

I’m not much of a country music fan, but I do consider myself a bit of a Johnny Cash aficionado when it comes to the Man In Black’s discography. Though I plan to write more about the subject down the road, the most urgent matter of today is this week’s release of a once-shelved Cash studio album dating back to the mid-1980s.

I didn’t have a whole lot of faith in this record initially when thinking back on the music from that era, particularly of this genre, but was delighted to hear how well it’s held up after a few spins. Maybe it’s the additional overdubs that’s helped fine-tune these songs, or maybe it’s just nostalgia that carries it so well.

The album has hints of Cash’s boom-chick-a-boom style of his early years and the ghostly solitude of his latter days with Rick Rubin, but without all the dark clouds that accompanied those releases during his final decade. All in all, it’s most comparable to the 1979 standout album Silver than much of what he released in the years that followed.

There’s tales of crime, love, heartache and redemption, just about every angle you’d expect Cash to cover. Yet it’s done with a much more polished feel that at times covers up too many of his intricate flaws that have come to characterize his sound.

Somewhere beneath the heavy production is a voice and persona that comes across as sounding much younger and livelier than many will remember him for. But whatever the lasting impression, Out Among The Stars is a worthy addition to his collection, notably due to a handful of tracks that now deservingly see the light of day.

If focusing solely on individual tracks, this record may come across as a bit pedestrian to anyone opting to merely scan through it. But experiencing each song as a collective, under the umbrella of the album, leaves a much more palatable impression that’ll leave you satisfied upon conclusion.

In saying that, there’s no doubt that a handful of tracks serve as the backbone to this release, helping to make the overall experience worthwhile as a whole.

The title track gets things started in grand fashion with the tale of an outlaw running amuck and out of luck while ducking the grasp of the law.

“She Used to Love Me a Lot” is an ode to how our minds perceive old memories in relation to the present tense. It’s hard not to imagine yourself sitting in the driver’s seat as Cash waivers in confidence by song’s end.

Waylon Jennings appears alongside Cash on a rowdy rendition of “I’m Movin’ On,” which packs energetic grooves and Highwaymen swagger that ultimately sounds better than anything they did together on the 1986 Heroes album.

Picking up where “I’m Movin’ On” left off, “I Drove Her Out of My Mind” is full of musical vigor as Cash tells the story of a deadly drive off a cliff with an ex in tow, all for the sake of finding closure following a breakup.

“Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” features June Carter Cash in what is a track that harkens back to their tag-team heyday of old souls in love. June also appears earlier in the album on “Baby Ride Easy.”

Maybe there was a legitimate reason this particular group of songs was never released by Columbia Records in 1984. It’s trivial because other Cash albums were put out by the label during that period in time, in which country music strayed from its foundation as labels tried cashing in on the pop music charts.

But there’s nothing left to be gained or lost for Cash nowadays. Just a reminder for fans that, much like the times, he continued to evolve and change. The gap being filled by Out Among The Stars is a welcome amendment to the tail end of his time at Columbia, and serves as an interesting prelude for what was yet to come in his final years.

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