When a musician you really love passes away, it often changes the way you listen to their music. Certain phrases now seem prophetic; the minor keys sound a shade more ominous; those moments of pure joy take on a tinge of the bittersweet. Sometimes, that’s unfortunate: I’d rather be able to listen to “Leaving on a Jet Plane” the old way, without thinking about death. But Johnny Cash’s music wore this postmortem filter from the beginning. If anything, his death in 2003 made all those old amphetamine-fueled masterworks about feeling imprisoned—by love, by the law, by his own demons—come into even crisper focus.
All of this bodes well for Out Among the Stars, a session completed in 1984 for Columbia Records that apparently got lost in the shuffle when Cash signed with Mercury a year later. The story goes that Cash’s son, John Carter, stumbled upon the forgotten recordings in 2012 while poring over his parents’ archives. Co-produced by John, the restored project is a breezily confident country album that buttresses its weaknesses with the genre’s greatest singing voice.
While the list of players who contributed to the new sessions is long, Out Among the Stars seems to mostly stick to the vision of original producer Billy Sherrill, who co-wrote “Stand By Your Man” and is credited with creating the crossover “countrypolitan” sound of the 1970s. Most of the album manages to sound both richly produced and unpretentious, just some harmless country-pop for a Sunday drive. A pair of duets with June Carter are as effortlessly romantic as you’d hope, though Johnny does get a little pushy about her cooking on “Baby Ride Easy.” “I Drove Her Out of My Mind” is a honkytonk murder-suicide fantasy that’s more playful than that sounds. And though the ballad “After All” survives with its tinny electric piano chords intact, Cash plays cowboy Sinatra over it, and turns what could easily have been a “That’s What Friends Are For” schmaltz pile into a legitimate statement about love as a belief system.
It’s awfully tough to listen to Out Among the Stars in a vacuum, to pretend that we’re not hearing these 30-year-old tracks with the knowledge that their driving force no longer walks among us. I imagine if it had come out in ’84, it would’ve been greeted warmly enough before fading away like the rest of Cash’s albums from that period. It’s certainly not the lost masterpiece that John makes it out to be in the liner notes, but it gives us moments like the title track, another Johnny Cash song about a man with a death wish, with a chorus that helps us mourn his absence without distorting exactly what he was. Out Among the Stars is a reminder of how easy Cash made it all look even when he was slumping.