The Man In Black Returns
'Ring of Fire' is the first Cash collection that spans the Man in Black's entire 5 decades of music; it also coincides with the stateside release of the biopic 'Walk The Line'. Whether you're cynical of 'best ofs' or not, especially with the lucrative film tie-in, it's great to see Johnny Cash back in the record stores and the public's hearts again. There are so many artists that you can't even begin to comprehend without seeing where rock n'roll came from and how it has got to its current form, and listening to Johnny Cash's deep, country-tinged refrains will provide a lot of the answers.
In the lazy strum-a-long rhythm of 'Ring Of Fire' which you could just imagine in the best of Westerns and strolling guitar of 'I Walk The Line' you can find the most undiluted, grim and gritty country sound. 'Jackson' is more frivolous in its hastily picked guitar and a groove that's still alive almost 40 years after its recording. The early tracks certainly get a good look in, 'Folsom Prison Blues' adds to their number with its nonchalant honesty, despite lyrics such as "But I shot a man in Reno/ Just to watch him die"; it's this sort of lyrical brutality, matched with the breezy, skipping guitar rhythm that makes Cash's tunes especially fascinating.
A special treat to make this more than just a collection of Cash's songs that already have been re-released on dozens of CDs, is the live version of 'A Boy Named Sue', a raucous and merry recording with plenty of warm approval from the audience that just makes you smile along with the merry punch line to the saga, "If I ever have a son, I think I'll name him...Bill or George/ Any damn thing but Sue!" The other live offering 'San Quentin' is just as rousing, but slightly more cohesive and with a fuller sound to my ears.
'Big River' blazes lazily along with the large riffs and deep vocals that are expected from its name, while 'Get Rhythm' spices things up a bit with a breakneck speed that gets you caught up in its sparky, driving pulse. 'Cry! Cry! Cry!' and 'Hey Porter' are perfect examples of Cash's abrasive spit and swagger style that endears itself through its rough honesty and coarseness of sound. 'A Thing Called Love' has a noticeably smoother, more cultivated sound, not just because of the lilting chorus of backing singers, but merely because Cash's vocals sound more positive and rich.
'Man In Black' has come to be an statement of intent for Cash, but it's one of the strongest and most accessible tracks on this album with an upbeat, jangly sound that can't help but stir something in your soul as Cash runs through his austere lyrics, "I wear the black in mourning for the lives that could have been."
'Highwayman' is one of the most stirring tunes with its lush production and stirring performances from Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson over a background of calling guitars and blanket of melodic sound. Another guest performance, but this time Cash is joined by U2; 'The Wanderer' is one of those polarised tunes that you either love or hate, its slippery reversed echo buzzing beneath Cash's deep, sincere vocals. Personally I think it's a very evocative combination, but initially it may be a bit of a shock when you've just emerged from the very country sound of Cash's earlier tunes. 'Rusty Cage' has some great, grimy guitarwork that really compliments Cash's gravelly voice in this guttural cover of the Soundgarden classic. 'Personal Jesus' is equally given a great makeover with sparkling piano and rasping vocals making it more of a lazy blues number than a goth refrain. A wonderful climax, the tearfully tender cover of 'One' takes your breath away, before possibly one of the greatest covers of all time, 'Hurt' takes centre stage leaving even the strongest men weak at the knees. The reflective, minimalist guitars allowing room for Cash's bare, ruminating vocals that seem to swell with sorrow taking the song to a higher level than the original could ever manage.
There really is something for everyone on this album, the older generations may be more appreciative of the earlier tracks, but they're also an education for today's rock fans and full of recognisable rhythms and catchy riffs. These young fans are sure to be able to understand, and even place the covers towards the end of the album and the later tracks with a more produced tune. Unfortunately it's hard to sum up the album when you're so overcome with emotion from the last few stunning tracks!