Album review: Johnny Cash’s “Out Among the Stars”

Think pop-country meets polka and annoying keyboard presets.

Johnny Cash's catalogue does not benefit from

Legacy Recordings

Johnny Cash's catalogue does not benefit from "Out Among the Stars."

Emily Eveland

In the early 1980s, Johnny Cash relapsed. In 1983, he cleaned up in rehab. The next year, he wrote and recorded the majority of “Out Among the Stars,” an album that was never released — until now.

Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, dug up the old recordings, recruited guitarist Marty Stuart to record new tracks and released what may be the most cringe-worthy Johnny Cash album to date.

It’s not Cash’s fault. Columbia Records shelved the album after its recording. And it’s understandable that his son would want to release the lost tapes.

Cash is similar to artists like Kurt Cobain, 2Pac and Elvis in that his music experienced a resurgence in popularity after he died. When you’ve reached saint status like Johnny Cash, fans will swallow subpar mixtape after mixtape.

“Out Among the Stars’” saving grace is Cash’s unwavering voice, which could easily be recognized in a black metal song.

Alas, his singing was not enough to save the album, which unnecessarily bridges the gap between pop country and polka. Worst of all, the backing tracks sound like an intensified version of the annoying preset beats on a child’s first Casio keyboard.

It’s admirable that Cash got clean and was able to be present as a father and husband, but let’s be real — we love Johnny Cash for his grit and gloomy introspection, not for unicorns and lollipops, which seem to be the driving forces of “Out Among the Stars.”

To put it simply, the post-recovery happy-go-lucky attitude did terrible things to his music. Not that he should have kept using — it’s just that his darker material was more striking than what followed his “come to Jesus” moment.

There are a number of redeeming songs on the album, including “Out Among the Stars,” “She Used to Love Me A Lot” and “Tennessee,” the latter of which may be considered cheesy by some but has one of the catchiest country choruses of any Cash song.

The most surprising track on the album is “If I Told You Who It Was,” which chronicles Cash’s presumably fictional experience of changing his favorite country singer’s tire.

It’s clear the song is headed in a strange direction when Cash suggestively sings, “Her tire, unlike her body, was very flat,” and, “As she raised the lid, I grabbed her bumper jack.”

And then he goes there. The woman in question apparently invites him back to her hotel to “fool around,” and Cash decides, “If I was one of them country music folks, I tell ya’ she would surely get my vote for the best performance of the year.” Meanwhile, what sounds like a children’s choir harmonizes in the background, further contributing to the absurdity.

“I Came to Believe,” the second-to-last offering, is basically a thinly veiled regurgitation of the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. Cash sings about his powerlessness, the destruction he was causing in his own life and the role his higher power had in helping him clean up.

Frankly, “I Came to Believe” makes sense of the happy-go-lucky attitude plaguing the rest of the album. Of course Cash is happy — he put down the drink. Fortunately for his music, the pink cloud of recovery didn’t last forever and the painful feelings inevitably returned somewhere down the line.

“Out Among the Stars” shows a different side of Johnny that will do one of two things for diehard fans: provide welcomed pieces of lost history or disturb their ingrained impressions of the man.

Rating: 1.5 out of 4