Johnny Cash often seemed like he was granite in human form, so it's odd to think that such a giant once had his career derailed by John Travolta. The 1980 hit film Urban Cowboy accelerated country's long drift toward music that was soft, vacant and overproduced – driving Cash to dismiss the "Urban Cowboy fad" as "mechanical-bull manure." Smokey and the Bandit II came out that year, too, which didn't help.
In Cash: The Autobiography, he admitted that as his sales fell off in the Eighties, he became apathetic. He'd relapsed into some destructive habits, too. Recalling his sessions with producer Billy Sherrill, Cash wrote, "We tried, sort of, but we certainly didn't give it our best." You might expect Out Among the Stars – a set of unreleased songs he cut with Sherrill in 1981 and 1984 – to be a contract-fulfilling sleepwalk. (Cash put out several mostly mediocre LPs in those years, but left this material unfinished; it was discovered after his death.) Instead, it proves that even at his most uninterested, Cash couldn't help but make a record with weight, moral complexity and grim humor.
The album begins, strategically, with a violent story. In the title track, a down-on-his-luck guy commits an odd form of suicide; deliberately botching a liquor-store robbery, he feels "a great relief" knowing the police will soon shoot him dead. Compared with the maudlin version Merle Haggard cut a few years later, Cash's take is stoic and resigned: "I robbed a man in Texas, just so I could die."
As with most Cash albums, this one ranges across styles, including a crisp honky-tonk duet with Waylon Jennings on Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On," and "If I Told You Who It Was," a coy novelty song about a fan who has a fling with his "favorite female country star" after he finds her stranded ("Her tire, unlike her body, was very flat"). On the fragile, gospel-touched ballad "I Came to Believe," one of two songs Cash wrote here, he praises God as the only salvation from a life of despair.
It's hard to say if these recordings were ever as uninspired as Cash seems to have thought, because they've been altered; elite Nashville players recently overdubbed instruments including dobro and fiddle for a spare, traditional sound, with plenty of Fifties reverb, that suits the songs.
"She Used to Love Me a Lot" begins with hope and ends in magnificent remorse. Cash sounds most alive on "I Drove Her Out of My Mind," the confession of a pilled-up madman who says goodbye to his ex by steering them both off a cliff. "It's gonna be just gorgeous!" he cackles, before a choir softly and perversely repeats the phrase "to the pearly gates."
Cash sang about people who'd stumbled – which he often did, too. In Out Among the Stars' liner notes, his son, John, reveals that Cash had slid back into addiction circa 1980, which hints at how much autobiography there was in "I Came to Believe." With five great tracks that augment Cash's legacy, this is an uncertain record driven by perseverance – the quality that kept him going to his final, resounding renaissance in the Nineties.