Review: John Mellencamp – No Better Than This (Rounder, 2010)
John Mellencamp is an artist whose depth continues to impress and surprise. His populist anthems of the 1980s demonstrated heartland roots that Springsteen could only write of, and even as he was charting with “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” and “Lonely Ol’ Night,” he was filling out his albums with the social commentary of “Rain on the Scarecrow” and co-founding Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and Neil Young. His commentary continued to mature and turned naturally introspective, and though he continued to place singles on the charts, his albums became increasingly whole in tone. He explored urban soul sounds, returned to rock ‘n’ roll basics, explored historic folk and blues songs, and wrote through a dark streak of social and eprsonal commentary on his last few studio albums.
In many ways, the winding path of his career, the early malice of the record industry, the misunderstanding of music critics, the fight to regain his name and his artistic bona fides, is the road that led to this collection of original songs. The roots introduced on Lonesome Jubilee and explored on Big Daddy are now taken for granted, both in Mellencamp’s music and across the Americana scene. The mountain sounds, slap bass and vintage blues tones are no longer seen as affectations or anthropological explorations, but as the foundation that’s always underlined Mellencamp’s music. On this new, brilliantly executed album, Mellencamp visits and records at three historical locations: the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Sun Studios in Memphis and room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio.
There’s a bit of fetishism in toting along mono analog equipment, lining up on the marks laid down by Sam Phillips, and reinstalling a wood floor in the hotel room, but the connections made to the musicians who first sounded out these spaces famous was worth the effort. Mellencamp doesn’t attempt to raise ghosts as much as he amplifies the echoes that have always threaded through his music. The slap bass of “Coming Down the Road” catches the excitement of mid-50s Sun records without imitating them. Best of all, the minimalistic live recording – no mixing or overdubs – is mostly shorn of T-Bone Burnett’s influences as a producer. What this record (and yes, it is available on vinyl) shows is that it’s not the recording, it’s what’s being recorded. The primitive sound serves to focus the listener’s ear on the artist’s lyrics and moods.
Mellencamp wrestles with the existence of life-after-death, opting to appreciate his time on Earth in the opening “Save Some Time to Dream,” and taking a more laissez-faire attitude (“I’ll see you in the next world / If there is really one”) in the defeated “A Graceful Fall.” The latter’s misfortune would play more darkly if not for Mellencamp’s large, near Vaudevillian vocal, as would the self-pity of “No One Cares About Me,” were it not sung to a country-rockabilly backing and tagged with an optimistic hint of redemption. That optimism segues into the album’s most touching song, “Love at First Sight,” which is matched by the heartbreaking wistfulness of the 50-years-later “Thinking About You.” The opening lyric of the latter proclaims “It’s not my nature / To be nostalgic at all,” but it’s only a device within the song’s story, as Mellencamp medicates on missed opportunities, unfulfilled desires and youthful lessons that only become clear with age.
This album shouldn’t be as surprising as it turns out to be. The elements have been evident throughout Mellencamp’s career, but never before has he so thoroughly leaned on his influences or strained them through such a vintage sound. The edges of his voice mate perfectly with the live recording and mono production’s punch to make these performances weathered exhalations of emotion rather than manicured studio creations. This is a great example of how the artifice that multi-track recording, overdubbing and other studio manipulations have interjected themselves between artists and listeners; and when an artist is really digging into himself, his life and the history that’s fueled his music, the more immediate the recording the better. These songs capture a reflective time in Mellencamp’s life and the recordings serve to amplify his every thought.