Back In Black

Yes, it's a great album title. Like the "L-O-V-E" and "H-A-T-E" tattoos on Robert Mitchum's fingers in Night of the Hunter, it's the punkiest black and white duality — with a super shade of gray thrown in. And with liner note essays by Bono and Quentin Tarantino, the concept of this three-CD Johnny Cash collection — conveniently arranged by three central Cash song themes — is clearly meant to play upon the Man in Black's credentials, which always have been of the highest order.

But, along with the two pop personality tributes, the title smacks of a gimmick-driven means of repackaging classic '50s and '60s Cash catalog ("I Walk the Line" [RealAudio excerpt], "Ring of Fire," "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Still Miss Someone," "The Long Black Veil") with some B sides and unreleased gems. There's also material from his most current releases for Rick Rubin's now Sony-housed American label, for which he delivered his infamous middle-fingered tradepaper ad — and for good reason. Recent songs like the "The One Rose (That's Left in My Heart)" [RealAudio excerot] (found here on the Love disc) or solo acoustic guitar version of Kris Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord" (featured, naturally, on the God set) show that Cash, who's been gravely ill of late but reportedly well enough on the mend to be readying his next album of new material, is as musically vital as ever, regardless of the neglect he's suffered in the last decade at the hands of short-sighted country radio programmers.

By definition, the thematic groupings of Love God Murder lack the historical perspective and best-of orientation of 1992's three-CD set, The Essential Johnny Cash. Missing, as well, are more informative annotations for those who would like more context. Fortunately, this beautifully packaged set (the three discs are also available singly, though you won't get the temporary tattoos of the three title words' icons) does contain brief introductions from Cash, who supervised the compilations. Unfortunately, nowhere does he explain why any of these particular songs were chosen from the hundreds of others he's recorded in the last five decades or so, or why they have special significance to him. That's a downright shame.

Of the three discs, God is probably the most interesting, if only because while a sense of the holy has always been present in his music, religious belief is also the least mainstream — and most overlooked — of Cash's themes. Missing, oddly, is "Daddy Sang Bass," perhaps Cash's best-known example from this genre. But the vintage gospel "The Old Account," the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and the ethereal "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord [RealAudio excerpt])," which features the Carter Family, more than compensate. (Speaking of the legendary "First Family" of Country music, June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash's wife and co-writer of Love's "Ring Of Fire" and "My Old Faded Rose," appropriately contributes that disc's heartfelt essay.)

Bono is typically blathering in his praise for God ("Johnny Cash is a righteous dude"), though his point that "it's the 'outlaw' in him we love" is to a great extent quite true. Go back to the live version of "Folsom Prison Blues" [RealAudio excerpt], from the At Folsom Prison live album (the 1956 Sun single is included on Murder), and hear the inmates cheer when he sings "But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die!" — just as free folks do at every Cash concert.

In his notes to Murder, violence-obsessed filmmaker Tarantino predictably hails Johnny Cash's songs as "poems to the criminal mentality." (No, Quentin, that would be Eminem.) Despite the uniform greatness of Love God Murder's 48 tracks, then, there remains something unsettling about the set. While undeniably powerful subjects, it would be wrong to equate Johnny Cash with simply love, God, and murder, when there's so much more sheer humanity to the man, his work and his legend.