Love, God, and murder -- the Man in Black has had plenty to say about each over the course of his 45-year-career. The triumvirate is the focus of this three-disc set selected by Johnny Cash himself (each CD is also available separately); he also penned succinct liner notes for each volume. In many ways, Love, God, Murder
feels like a self-portrait of country's most imposing figure. Cash has always evinced an understanding of people living on society's fringes, at their wits' end, pushed to unspeakable, unholy deeds that destroy them as well as their victims. He also realizes the sad truth that some among us are no damn good under any circumstances. Which is where love and God enter the equation. Redemption provides the all-encompassing rubric for the songs on the three discs, and it happens to be the title of a song culled from Cash's 1994 American Recordings
for the God
On to the facts: 48 songs on three discs, a handful previously unreleased in the U.S., many acknowledged classics, and a few album tracks that qualify as hidden gems. In addition to Cash's liner notes, each volume contains additional reflections. While Bono's musings on God and Quentin Tarantino's take on Murder may not be groundbreaking, June Carter Cash's reminiscence on Love is revelatory. The explanation of how her relationship with Cash grew from a fever (or ring of fire, to be accurate) into an enduring flame is as finely wrought as one of the songs on her wonderful Press On album, one of 1999's best.
Following are reviews of each individual disc.
"I remember when I fell into June's 'Ring of Fire.' There was a lot of showing it as well as saying it. Never has there been a deeper love than my love for her. At times it was painful, but we shared the pain, so it was just half painful." --Johnny Cash, liner notes excerpt
As much as Cash has celebrated the joy and pain of pursuing, finding, and losing love, he's been forever perplexed by its power. This is the subtext that gives many of the songs on Love an edgy, restless ambience, as if what's here today might well be gone tomorrow if he doesn't watch himself. "I Walk the Line," from 1956, introduced a mindset that would be equally manifest in 1967's "I Tremble for You" (previously unreleased in the U.S.) and 1996's "The One Rose (That's Left in My Heart)." On the other hand, you can disregard the philosophical underpinnings and simply enjoy the feelings aroused by these stirring meditations: "Flesh and Blood," "Ring of Fire," the haunting, atmospheric "I Still Miss Someone," and a brisk foray into western swing on "I Feel Better All Over," an overlooked gem from 1960. Only a handful of artists have plumbed the complexities of love as effectively as Cash; fewer still have been big enough to admit to having no easy answers as to what it's all about.
"To me, God likes a southern accent and He tolerates country music and quite a bit of guitar. This record is a sampling from over the years, a carefully selected, but complicated mix of gospels, spirituals and songs of praise. At times, I'm a voice crying in the wilderness, but at times I'm right on the money and I know what I'm singing about. It's about sharing, praise, worship, wonder and wisdom. So, share in the joy here and maybe the rest will follow for all of us." --Johnny Cash, liner notes excerpt
What better way to describe the 16 songs on God? Cash and his Sun compadre Elvis have a singular way with sacred songs. Something deep and fundamentally revealing surfaces in the commitment they bring to their gospel performances, and in each artist's case, this segment of their canon ages most gracefully. Other than casting the Almighty as "The Greatest Cowboy of All" and metaphorically as "The Great Speckled Bird," Cash sings of a Divine Being that is more benevolent than avenging, although Hell, literally, is to be paid for dissing Him. These are the songs of a believer: "My God Is Real," "Why Me Lord," the obscure "Man in White" (a single recorded for the Ezra label in 1986), "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea," and the monumental "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)," once the soul-stirring centerpiece of Cash's live show. You may not subscribe to his religion, but the moral certitude and unwavering faith Cash exudes in his approach to this material is accessible to skeptics and converts alike. Powerful, powerful stuff.
"Here is my personal selection of my recordings of songs of robbers, liars and murderers. These songs are just for listening and singing. Don't go out and do it." --Johnny Cash, liner notes excerpt
Not as brutal as its title suggests, Murder finds room for, well, tenderness in its song selection, making this disc the most surprising in the triptych. Familiar fare dots the collection, such as the 1955 original Sun recording of "Folsom Prison Blues," the 1964 studio version of "The Long Black Veil," and the cautionary western tale from 1958, "Don't Take Your Guns to Town." These tracks are buttressed by lesser-known gems. From 1964 comes Johnny and June Carter Cash's delicate duet on Johnny Horton's "When It's Springtime in Alaska." Johnny's stark 1983 reading of Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman" reminds us that Cash was the first country artist to pick up on the Boss, continuing a track record he established in the early '60s when he introduced country fans to Dylan. For those who got a kick out of the gleeful brutality of Cash's American Recordings version of "Delia's Gone," this set includes the 1961 original, previously unreleased in the States. Murder is good for what ails you.