The cumulative effect of Johnny Cash's biography gives his third effort with producer Rick Rubin a resonance, even though his voice is starting to deteriorate due to age and illness. Suffused with the sorrow, resignation, and endurance that characterize his emblematic outlaw legacy, Cash's first recording in nearly three years lacks the uniformity of its great predecessors, American Recordings and Unchained. But it more than compensates in range, spanning an unexpectedly powerful take on Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man," a chilling rendition of Palace Brother Will Oldham's "I See a Darkness," and a version of Nick Cave's jauntily macabre "The Mercy Seat" that puts the death penalty in its cruel place. While his voice has lost some edge, Cash still sings with authority, and his originals, particularly the ravishing "Field of Diamonds," are heartfelt even when they're tacky. Old friends and family abound on this CD, which is actually less stark and focused than Cash's other American Recordings. One could say its modesty gives it power, and the blend of violence and beauty at the core of Cash's voice is perhaps best embodied in Cash's ravaged, wistful version of U2's "One," a rendition that gives this album long-lasting grace.
A similarly stark grace informs Badlands, a tribute to Nebraska, the great 1982 album that ranks with Bruce Springsteen's best and most heartfelt populist works. Badlands may signal the transition of Springsteen from boomer rocker to elder statesman, paralleling Cash's elevation from rockabilly hellhound to Americana's Mount Rushmore. Dar Williams has never sounded as urgent as on "Highway Patrolman," Los Lobos puts the hard lovin' into the hard-lovin' loser of "Johnny 99," and pop couple Aimee Mann and Michael Penn sweep up the listener in the mournfully inspiring "Reason to Believe." Ironically enough, Johnny Cash himself sings "I'm on Fire" downright soggily, giving this risqué, slightly deviant tune a surprisingly wrongheaded interpretation. That won't stop music fans from rendering Springsteen the kind of adulation Cash has enjoyed for at least 20 years. Let's hope Springsteen discovers a creative wellspring similar to the one Cash tapped into in the '90s.