Holidays are so depressing. Not because of the ubiquitous underlying sense of apocalypse that arises within your soul when facing that occupied table of strangers that you had formally known as relatives, but more because of the horrible schlock that your favorite artists have decided to record and distribute. Luckily, though, this winter’s tale appears to exude magic with every piercing gust of arctic wind. Who’s got the muse? Everyone’s got the muse!
Johnny Cash brings us a posthumous five disc box set, “Unearthed,” while Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs comes together with his new group, The Twilight Singers, for their second release, “Blackberry Belle.” Paul Westerberg of the Replacements flies solo once again with “Come Feel Me Tremble.” All of these blasts from the past break from their hard slumbers and deliver some breathtaking collections of fabulous auditory glee.
Johnny Cash’s muse was Rick Rubin. The ’90s framed this leviathan’s Renaissance under the seemingly blase hand of bearded Maestro Rubin himself. Rubin sits on the floor with his dogs all the time (it’s in the liner notes, man), and I couldn’t possibly think of a better setting in which to absorb these five plump discs. The package itself reeks of ripe fruit that begs you to pluck its pure heavenly delights from the vine. Cash covers just about everybody you could possibly imagine — Dolly Parton, Steve Earle, Merle Haggard, Cat Stevens — and, if that were not enough, he even duets with even stranger characters, Fiona Apple and Nick Cave included.
Granted, his last official release, “The Man Comes Around,” included earlier duets with these artists, but the new Cave duet “Cindy” saws through bone until you positively must plead for more morphine. My God it’s pleasurable, and the elation refuses to lift. Who else but Johnny Cash could record “Heart of Gold” and then cause a momentary lapse of memory before the name forms in your head — “Oh yeah! That’s a Neil Young song!” Then you remember that a mere six songs earlier you’d heard “Pocahontas” in the same incredible magna vox. Though I’ve said many times that the vast majority of Jamaican music makes my skin crawl, Cash made me finally begin to appreciate Bob Marley with his rendition of “Redemption Song” with another tired soul, Joe Strummer.
After three discs, Rubin unleashes a fourth of completely new versions of classic spiritual numbers that Cash had always wanted to record. I predict another Sinead O’Connor breakdown once she hears “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning,” seeing as it annihilates her latest Celtic spiritual attempt at an album — and not just because it’s in English. Cash’s voice oozed the flames of redemption even when his suffering had paralyzed his body. He didn’t need the painkillers to live — all he ever asked was that the red button on the studio console be pushed. When the clock started, he was always ready, and “Unearthed” is the only proof I need. Tectonic plates, beware — Johnny’s still singing.
Greg Dulli, of the old alternative soulsters The Afghan Whigs repute, can also still sing. His new group The Twilight Singers has apparently stifled his insane Ryan-Adams-on-the-4th-of-July demon streak — at least in the recording studio. “Blackberry Belle” sounds an awful lot like the ol’ shaggy dogs themselves, but no one could possibly ask him to break new ground these days. Listening to these familiarly simple melodies, it’s hard to picture Dulli as the smarmy rhapsodic pimp that we’ve all come to love in the same way that we just can’t seem to get enough of Courtney Love’s legal woes. (Honestly, bringing a dog into court and pleading not guilty to drug abuse after an overdose is like dressing like the Cat in the Hat and swearing you didn’t pee in the punch.)
Seriously, though, the first Twilight Singers album wasn’t bad, but here, something not quite tangible hauntingly propels these new songs. Dulli must have an absurdly acrimonious rivalry within his conscience, because the music sounds heavenly while his delivery is drenched in blood. His merciless, unrelenting devil has disemboweled his resilient, weak angel. Forget “Dark Side of the Moon” — if you sync “Blackberry Belle” with the death of the wicked witch in “The Wizard of Oz” you’ll get the most satisfyingly sadistic death scene in history. I do realize that the witch was evil and Dulli is slaying his angel, but I always hated that good witch. “Only bad witches are ugly,” she said. God, what a bitch! Screw your pink gown and wand, you wench. I’ll take a wart, green face, and sign a binding contract with Lord Lucifer if it means I can wear that awesome black hat instead of your nauseating tutu and crown that I hope cuts your scalp and leaves you with a vicious rash, you pigheaded flake! Remember, pink is the color of pigs. Dulli’s muse, like Cash’s, only wears black, even if his music invokes saffron. Next!
Paul Westerberg is the most underrated songwriter ever. Gross overstatement, you say? Probably, but I’ll be damned if he hasn’t written at least ten perfect pop songs in his career. Jackson Browne only has one, and it’s called “These Days,” complete with perfunctory ‘highway’ reference. Nico famously covered it, and up until now I couldn’t think of anyone who could challenge her chilling performance. On “Tremble,” Westerberg delivers it with such care that the resignation in his voice could only be induced or synthesized with the help of a little brown sugar, but this guy is so talented that even heroin couldn’t suppress his passion.
I defy you to imagine the extraordinary fervor in the other songs, which are not covers. He’s so catchy I’ve been spitting up saccharin tempered with mercury for the last week and a half. He reaches so far, in fact, that he can allow you to understand Sylvia Plath (I swear to God) while still bobbing your head. Yes, she bobbed her head a wee bit too far in the middle of the center rack in her kitchen, but after hearing “Crackle and Drag” the last thing you’d want to do would be to end it all. In fact, I was so giddy that I thought I’d played it again when, actually, I’d been listening to the second version that follows consecutively on the album and found myself on the verge of a massive headrush. High blood pressure be damned! Paul Westerberg looked in the mirror one morning and realized that his muse always lived inside that noggin’ of his that’s so big he can wear an early ’90s skateboard cap with bill flipped up and still look like a million dollars.
In a few weeks I’ll be back at that table staring at those who’ve wronged me considerably over the years with anecdote after painstaking anecdote and have expected me to thank them graciously for gift certificates to the Pottery Barn. This time, though, I will be expecting it and will have given myself a premature holiday courtesy of these Ghosts of Christmas Past.
Cash 4 /Dulli 3 /West 4.5
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