Love, God, Murder, 48 tracks on three themed discs, isn’t any sort of greatest hits package (a mere seven of his 104 charting singles are represented), and it makes no claim to being the “essential” cuts, which honor remains with Columbia’s previous, and, indeed, essential, three disc box of 1992 (and, thankfully, only 14 tracks from The Essential Johnny Cash are duplicated here). The selections and sequencing here are Cash’s own, and the set is his testimony to a life in music and music in a life. As it is lived the life in music is not reducable to hits, however great or essential. It’s more personal, more idiosyncratic, it’s simply songs the singer loves. Love, God, Murder is thus something less obvious and more interesting, and, in its way, more satisfying, than previous compilations.
Johnny Cash fancied himself a gospel singer when he first walked into Sun Studios in 1955. Sam Phillips, as interested in selling records as he was in making them, disagreed, and Sun was, after all, his studio. Still, 45 years later, as if to have the final word, Cash has devoted a complete disc of his career retrospective to his first love, gospel music, and for those who know only the hits God is a revelation.
When he sings “My God is real / For I can feel Him in my soul” (“My God Is Real,” 1962), measuring every word, it’s a plain and dignified statement of bedrock faith, and you best believe he means it. That faith underwrites every song of God, whether “Belshazzar,” recorded at Sun in his early signature style, the enigmatic “Great Speckled Bird,” the steady rolling “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” or the gospel Western, “The Greatest Cowboy of Them All.” And Cash the producer is inspired too. From the rollicking “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea” (from Unchained, his last release), all driving mandolin and saloon piano, he segues to “Were You There” (1962), a devotional as spare and gentle as a blown kiss. God will make a believer out of you, at least for 46 minutes and 48 seconds.
It’s Cash’s voice, the instantly recognizable river-bottom baritone, deep and wide and never hurried, the voice of experience and authority, that invest these songs of faith, as well as the songs of crime (Murder) and the songs of desire (Love), with the imprimatur of revealed truth. Cash may feel Sunday morning salvation as only a man who’s known the temptations of Saturday night — drink, drugs, another man’s wife, all the dark impulses they summon — can, but if his reputation is out of proportion to his record (though a repeat backslider, he has spent but one night in jail), the myths owe much of their life to the powerful grain of his voice. The simplest phrases, “Flesh and blood needs flesh and blood / And you’re the one I need” (“Flesh And Blood,” 1970), sound the very word of scripture itself when intoned by Johnny Cash.
Included here are canonical songs — “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “I Walk The Line,” “Ring of Fire” — and why not, they’re each among the finest ever waxed. But the big hits are readily available elsewhere. It’s the more obscure gems, old album tracks, most remembered by few save Cash completists, things like “Goin to Memphis,” “Orleans Parish Prison,” and “The Sound of Laughter,” from Murder, “A Little at a Time,” I Feel Better All Over,” “While I’ve Got It on My Mind,” from Love, that make Love, God, Murder something special, and a fitting testament to a career worthy of both the Country Music and Rock And Roll Halls of Fame.
The “deluxe packaging” of Love, God, Murder includes liner notes by Cash, as well as essays on the themes by June Carter Cash (Love), Bono (God), and Quentin Tarantino (Murder). Bono and Tarantino no doubt come by their enthusiasm for Johnny Cash as honestly as any of us (Mrs. Cash, of course, requires no justification), nonetheless their presence seems a bit of bald faced marketing, a rather transparent attempt to appeal to the younger, hipper audience that has been the payoff of Cash’s two most recent releases, American Recordings (1994) and Unchained (1996). Tarantino, true to purpose and right on cue, wonders “if gangsta rappers know how little separates their tales of ghetto thug life from Johnny Cash’s tales of backwoods thug life,” reveling in the same sort of anachronistic analysis as the young turks who find a proto-punk in Hank Williams. As obvious and dumb as such a ploy is, here’s to hoping it works. Johnny Cash and Love, God, Murder deserve as wide an audience as they can get.