Spirit is Willie Nelson’s variation on American Recordings, Johnny Cash’s 1994 return to glory: low-key, acoustic, stripped to the rugged fundamentals of a good song and a superior voice. Nelson brings his own bunkhouse-Romeo charm to the concept; these are songs of amour and wonder, rendered with a sumptuous ease. The album is so hushed in tone and gentle in temperament that at times it seems weightless, lacking in emotional gravity. But Nelson’s singing. — with its craggy humanity and ruminative ache — remains a heavy wonder in itself, and the exquisite fiddling of old Bob Wills sidekick Johnny Gimble is always something to behold.
When Johnny Cash burrows into the grim, lumbering defiance of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” on Unchained, he actually sounds like he’s starting to come unhinged. But it takes more than a little Book of Revelations-styled Seattle angst and a few curveball covers (Beck’s “Rowboat,” the Dean Martin chestnut “Memories Are Made of This”) to shake Cash’s cast-iron vocal constitution. With Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers behind him (sounding more like the Hollywood Cantina Five than the Tennessee Two), Unchained is a more conventional country-blues record than American Recordings. It is also less of an art project. Cash brings equal helpings of spirituality and savoir-faire to his singing, and when he powers into the chorus of the road-dog song “I’ve Been Everywhere,” you can tell that he’s not done racking up the miles.