In recent years, Johnny Cash has made some poor music. He’s recorded songs that didn’t suit his peculiar, coarse subbaritone and struck saintly postures that couldn’t help but look foolish on such a craggy tough guy. While you rarely doubted his sincerity, particularly in matters of religious fervor, the songs that such zeal inspired were, ah, uninspired.
On I Would Like to See You Again, Cash modifies one of his earlier personas, the ex-con. In current country terminology, this outsider has become an Outlaw, and Cash, in keeping with the new secular faith, strips his sound to a lean roar, writes a few hard-boiled stories ripe with romantic agonies and enjoins Waylon Jennings, country music’s Incredible Hulk, to glower along on a couple of songs.
The result, far from the vapid trendiness you might expect, is Johnny Cash’s finest album in years, with “Hurt So Bad” and “Lately” his grittiest work since the “I Walk the Line” period. Producer Larry Butler keeps everything simple and even manages the difficult task of accommodating the Jordanaires into the elementary guitar /drums /piano mix. There’s some good luck — Cash is notoriously bad at picking cover material, but all of it here, especially, “I Don’t Think I Could Take You Back Again,” is competent and appropriate. And there’s some good playing — the duets with Jennings have more bite and fewer excesses than those on Waylon & Willie. The only real howler here is “Abner Brown,” Cash’s corny ballad about a drunk.
No question, the best of I Would Like to See You Again proves that a certain amount of lawlessness really perks up Johnny Cash’s music.