Love, God, Murder

Johnny Cash began his career at Sun Records in 1955 and has been hailed as a rebel poet in each decade since. Appropriately, instead of dropping another greatest-hits anthology or an unsurprising set of leftover rarities, for this collection he surveyed his enormous output the way a museum curator would. He ended up gathering contrasting perspectives on the major themes — love, God, murder — that have always rambled through his work. The resulting three-disc collection, which Cash produced, doesn't replace the excellent 1992 career overview, The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983. Love, God, Murder is less a comprehensive summation of his work than an examination of the forces that shaped and ruled Cash's mythic America — a world that included road-roughened drifters, radical true believers and coldhearted killers on the run. The Murder disc charts the evolution of his narrative style through decades of talk-sung tales of injustice and revenge, from 1955 to 1983, following the many ways his throaty growl linked up with that trademark gallop. Love compares what he knew about devotion in 1958, when he sang "I Still Miss Someone," with what he knew about it in 1996, when he interpreted "The One Rose (That's Left in My Heart)" with spare, steely-eyed understatement. What's most striking about these carefully culled surveys is how much overlap there is between them. Cash didn't have to be singing about a hanging to communicate a sense of life on the line: Death rears its head on the sweetest love song or gospel hymn. Whether he's quivering with a lover's obsession or sneering with a murderer's indifference or praying for forgiveness, Cash creates phrases that sound like more than music. They're moments of truth.