Picks and Pans Review: American Recordings

updated 05/16/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Johnny Cash

Guns, murder, blunts and booze: Move over Tupac, there's a new OG in town. Actually, make that an old Original Gangsta, 'cause Cash was singing about shooting men in Reno just to watch 'em die back when gangsta rappers were mere pups. And some things never change: The country star's first album in three years kicks off with "Delia's Gone," an unflinching, morbidly funny tale of murder sung without a hint of irony.

"Delia's" is only the most overt example of Johnny's grizzled gangsta-cowpoke vibe: Cash as Icon is the unspoken theme of American Recordings. The singer and his producer Rick Rubin (Red Hot Chili Peppers, L.L. Cool J) straddle a fine line between artful exploitation of the Man in Black legend (a mournful version of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire") and lame parody (schlock-satanist Glenn Danzig's "Thirteen"). Fortunately for both of them, Cash's humanity prevails over his cull of personality and ultimately makes this compelling listening. Recorded in Rubin's Hollywood living room and Cash's Tennessee cabin, the album is an acoustic, close-lo-the-bone collection that zeros in on the singer's deep, rich voice—a voice as mysterious as it is familiar, as dignified as it is raw and emotional. (American)

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