After 1994's American Recordings revitalized Johnny Cash's career, he and producer Rick Rubin had to come up with an encore, and in some respects 1996's Unchained was the sort of album many were expecting American Recordings to be. Instead of the solo acoustic approach of American Recordings, Unchained paired Cash with a noted rock band Rubin had worked with in the past -- Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, whose roots-conscious style and Southern heritage would seemingly make them compatible with the Man in Black. There's no arguing that Petty and his band sound fully committed on Unchained and deliver uniformly heartfelt and expert performances. However, part of what made American Recordings so effective was the opportunity to hear Cash's emotionally forceful vocals with only the most minimal accompaniment, and as good as the Heartbreakers are, in their presence Cash sounds a bit more restrained and less willing to push himself. Also, while having Cash cover Glenn Danzig's "Thirteen" worked unexpectedly well on American Recordings, taking on Beck and Soundgarden doesn't fare nearly as well here, and Cash's version of "Memories Are Made of This" may have been a better match in theory, but it doesn't quite make it in practice. But there are more than a few triumphant moments on this disc, including inspired recuts of "Country Boy" and "Mean Eyed Cat," a dignified and deeply felt interpretation of Petty's "Southern Accents," and a rollicking tear through "I've Been Everywhere" for the finale. If Unchained didn't seem like an event or an instant classic like its immediate predecessor, it confirmed Cash was still a vital artist with plenty of life in him, no mean feat for a man of 64 who'd been making records for more than 40 years.
by Mark Deming