This belated sequel to 2002’s triple-album retrospective Love God Murder features 18 songs that might easily have fitted under one or another of that set’s individual headings. Not, perhaps, “Murder”?the only death here is that of the Native American hero of Peter LaFarge’s “Ballad Of Ira Hayes”, a war hero allowed to fall into alcoholism and ignominy after he’d helped raise that iconic flag at Iwo Jima?but certainly “Love” and “God”. Such, I suppose, was “Life” for Johnny Cash: a shifting seascape of emotional turmoil in which love and faith provided vital anchorages in which to shelter from the self-destructive urges that tormented him.
Religion is a constant factor here, not just in the overt gospel of “Lead Me Gently Home” and “I Talk To Jesus Every Day” (“no secretary ever tells me He’s been called away”), but also seeping into other, apparently secular songs, like a background watercolour wash. The effect is most pronounced in sentimental celebrations of rural life such as “Country Trash”?which ends with the supposedly comforting prospect of heaven?and the nostalgic “Suppertime”, in which Johnny’s recollection of his mom calling him in at meal-time is crowned with a spoken interlude of jaw-dropping crassness. “But you know, time has woven for me a realisation of a truth that’s even more thrilling,” muses Cash. “That someday we’ll all be called together around the great supper table up there for the greatest suppertime of them all, with our Lord”.
How, you wonder, did he manage to perform this without sniggering? But then, it was 1958, when such profuse expressions of piety were the norm in country circles, and the song’s down-homey, demotic manner?suppertime with God!?vividly illustrates the singer’s grasp of his audience’s working-class attitudes. Those attitudes are themselves celebrated in “These Are My People” and given satisfyingly surly voice in Jim Chesnut’s “Oney”, in which a workman relishes his impending retirement day as an opportunity to even things up with his eponymous foreman: “I’ll be remembered as a working man/That put his point across/With a right hand full of knuckles/’Cause today I show old Oney who’s the boss.”
Less pleasing, from a foreigner’s point of view, is the glutinous patriotism of “Ragged Old Flag”, in which Americans’ perverse regard for a symbolic scrap of fabric is acclaimed in a tendentious setting of military snare and wistful harmonica, building to a grotesque finale of lachrymose strings and heavenly choir. The track dates from 1974, when Cash’s faltering career perhaps led him to pursue a more conservative audience than his own life and career merited.
It’s a far cry indeed from his quasi-liberal 1971 manifesto “Man In Black”, in which the singer explains why he wears black “for the poor and beaten down/For the prisoner who has long paid for his crime”, and for similar unfortunates such as the illiterate and the irreligious. Such vacillations of nobility might strike us as self-defeating, maybe even desperate; but Johnny Cash was always, to use his prot