The number of Johnny Cash compilations has grown beyond monumental proportions over the years. Unfortunately, most of these have been sub-par albums that grab one of his big hits and pad the rest with some miscellaneous album cuts.
Few compilations have been willing to put in the care and love for Cash's music than the God, Love, and Murder records. The man in black himself produced the three disc set that can be found as one collection or each disc separately.
By breaking the album into three "moods", Cash is able to show the elemental essence of his music and ultimately, his life. More than just the hits, Cash unearths some necessary treasures.
The God album includes sixteen of Cash's beloved songs of praise, gospels and spirituals. He never hid his Christianity, something that is clearly evident through his song choices. "It was Jesus", "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)" and "When He Comes" give little mystery to where Cash stands.
The songs range from the lighthearted "What on Earth Will You Do (For Heaven's Sake)" to the simple sing-along of "My God is Real" and the brokenheartedly repentant, "Why Me Lord". Nobody did country gospel better than the Carter Family and their presence cannot be overstated; not on this album nor in Cash's life.
It is fitting for the record to end with a sing along, the quietly uplifting "Oh Come, Angel Band". Cash's voice finds a place in gospel music where its power pales in comparison to what he is singing about. Nowhere else would Cash be overshadowed, as evident on the next two discs.
There is no mystery that Cash had a deep love for his wife, June Carter Cash. His love was expressed through hundreds of songs about love that were the perfect mix of longing, sentimentality, desire, romance and the excitement of new love.
Cash never sang a schmaltzy power ballad. His voice was that of a man who has loved and lost, on a real and personal level. He was never ashamed to show his true feelings in song, which made the song completely believable and could, deepen your understanding of what love is.
A few of Cash's best known songs are included here "Walk the Line", "I Still Miss Someone" and "Ring of Fire". Beyond that there are some great lesser known songs like the regret filled "A Little at a Time", the near giddy "I Feel Better All Over" and the lazy but lusty "While I've Got it on My Mind".
Both Johnny and June provide liner notes on Love and demonstrate how their love is multifaceted, steeped in need and desire but based on mutual respect and friendship.
Murder is the final disc and displays the most instantly recognizable facets of Cash and his music. Tales of prison, trains and history have been Cash's calling card since he released "Folsom Prison Blues" so many years ago.
The way Cash inhabits these songs it is no surprise his fans beleived he had spent hard time in prison. "Delia's Gone" is so serious, yet humorous, that it becomes impossible to separate the two. Maybe the listener starts to side with the murderer and is able to understand why someone would kill his lover for being "lowdown and trifling".
The live recording of "Cocaine Blues" performed in Folsom prison is the true cornerstone of the record. The energy, story, and reaction of the prisoners are absolutely classic Johnny Cash. Murder may be the weakest of the three discs, as it relies too much on the spoken story songs that Cash was fond of but didn't always translate into interesting songs.
God, Love, and Murder together is the definitive Johnny Cash compilation. Not if you just want the hits but if you do want to get to know the man and his passions on a personal level. Few artists have such concrete images attached to their name. Fewer still could stand at the stature of Johnny Cash. To be the man in black, riding trains, killing men just to watch them die, surviving and thriving, and sharing a deep and passionate love with his wife and his God.
If Johnny Cash isn't a man, I don't know what one is. He wasn't always one, but through these songs he became one.