Review: John Mellencamp- No Better than This
“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” the old saying goes. As with most old sayings it proves true in most cases. But not this time. Go ahead and judge this one by it’s cover. What appears to be a vintage photo from the ’50s or early ’60s turns out to be John Mellencamp’s teenage son Hud in a position one would imagine his namesake Larry McMurtry/Paul Newman character often found himself in: caught in between two beautiful girls. Elsewhere it says “No Better Than This: Thirteen New Songs by John Mellencamp” and tells us that it was recorded in mono. Judge this one, which will be released on August 17th, by it’s cover, because I’m guessing it looks as much like a country album from the ’50s and early ’60s to you as it does to me.
But, of course, the music is the most important thing and with that in mind I must bring up Hud again (the fictional one). One gets the feeling that McMurtry/Newman’s wild and reckless tragic modern-day cowboy listened to a lot of songs like this on drunken nights in run-down Texas barrooms. One also gets the feeling that John Mellencamp heard a lot of songs like these on Indiana radio as a kid. These are the type of songs which speak to the common person. They encompass subjects ranging from love to death to religion to the shape of American culture to unemployment. There are songs here that you can dance to, some you can cry to, and even one or two you can laugh at. In short, it’s the type of album that Merle Haggard might have released at one time.
Mellencamp has always described himself as a “folk singer” and previously sang the praises of Johnny Cash, hung out with Willie Nelson, and covered Jimmie Rodgers, Charlie Poole, and Waylon Jennings. He has even had a few songs hit the lower reaches of the country charts. But none of that prepared me for how country this album is. I have come to expect fiddles and accordions on John’s records and his distinctive blend of Appalachian instrumentation with classic rock is truly inspired. I knew he liked country music and often included elements of it in his work, but I never really expected it to go this far. But, trust me, it is a very pleasant surprise.
Mellencamp and producer T-Bone Burnett obviously belong together. That was clear on 2008’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom and even more so here. Both are men born a generation or two late; they would rather be in Clarksdale, Mississippi in the 1930s or Nashville in the 1940s than a modern corporate-run world where oil is gushing out of the ocean, the Supreme Court overrules the people’s choice for President, and we are fighting a war against a country who didn’t attack us. I’m not saying that not be political, but because it’s the truth. Mellencamp has always dealt with political and social issues in his music, but usually in a way that looked to the past for answers. In “Rain on the Scarecrow” he longed for the days when a man could “work his fields and cows.” in “Ghost Towns Along the Highway” he spoke of towns that were once great that were now in despair. In “To Washington” he detailed everything that led up to the invasion of Iraq, but began the song by talking about the “eight years of peace and prosperity” that preceded the Bush administration.
Similarly, Burnett has also tried to create a musical version of the past in all of his work. Whether it be recreating icons such as B.B. King and Robert Plant, taking Los Lobos back to recording the Mexican folk songs they started with, or creating the musical worlds of O Brother Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain just about everything he produces sounds decades old on the day its released.
The locations where these two men chose to record and the equipment they used speak to that longing for a better time as well as the dual nature of American folk music. A 240-year-old Baptist church in Georgia where slaves gathered to worship and sometimes fled to on their way north. A San Antonio hotel room dating back to 1909 where a bluesman who may have sold his soul to the devil once recorded. The place in Memphis where the best music ever made was captured on tape. All they took with them was a small band, one microphone, and a 1955 Ampex recorder.
“Save Some Time to Dream” kicks things off with a slow guitar and plenty of reverberation. Any connoisseur of classic American music will not need to look at the credits to know that this was recorded in Sun Studios. On the classic sides by Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis, Johnny Cash, and countless other legends the studio itself was an instrument and that proves to be the case here as well. Mellencamp delivers one of the best songs of his career, an uplifting, spiritual ballad that dispenses advice such as “save some time for living and always question your faith” before telling us to “save some time to dream, ’cause your dream might save us all.” Mellencamp’s cigarette-weathered voice sounds totally relaxed and at home, making this a real highlight of the album.
The next track is a mid-tempo bluesy number which revisits a theme common in Mellencamp’s music: the casual destruction of American communities. “For my whole life I’ve lived down in the West End,” he growls, “Things sure have changed here since I was a kid/It’s worse now, look what progress did/Someone lined there pockets I don’t know who that is.” Throughout the song he tells us about impoverished friends, fathers who spent their lives stuck in dead-end jobs here, and people just wanting to get out of a place that “ain’t no damn good.” T-Bone Burnett is always noted for his production and occasionally even as a recording artist, but his guitar playing is hardly ever mentioned. Listen to this track for proof that it should be.
“Right Behind Me” is a somewhat jazzy tune recorded in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel, the same place where Robert Johnson recorded. Fiddle and acoustic ragtime-styled guitar are in the forefront here as Mellencamp sings about his relationship with the devil. The song has an ethereal undertone and when he says that “I know Jesus and I know the Devil,” nobody will doubt his sincerity.
“It’s not a graceful fall from dreams to the truth,” Mellencamp sings to open “A Graceful Fall.” This tune makes me wonder if Mellencamp is the reincarnation of Hank Williams. It is a straightforward honky-tonk ballad where he declares “I’m sick of life ’cause it’s lost it’s fun.” This absolutely breathtaking tune is one of the best tracks on the album and is everything that great country music should be. As a side note, I wonder if the title was inspired by the film Falling from Grace which Mellencamp directed and starred in.
Mellencamp changes the pace on the next number and delivers the most upbeat song here. A rockabilly number about parties where he’s the only man is something that Carl Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis could have had a hit with back in the day. It once again proves Mellencamp’s ability to adapt to any genre and I challenge anybody to sit still while listening to it.
The next track “Thinking About You” is an acoustic country-folk tune about an old girlfriend that was recorded at Savannah, Georgia’s First African Baptist Church. The song actually fits thematically with two earlier Mellencamp tracks: 1980’s “To M.G. (Wherever She May Be)” and 1993’s “Sweet Evening Breeze.” Both of those tracks were highlights of their respective albums and this one follows suit. “Did you get the message I left the other afternoon,” Mellencamp asks in a voice slightly reminiscent of Dylan, “A young girl’s voice said ‘I’ll call you back real soon’/I bet that’s your daughter, she sounded like you used to/I just wanted to say I’ve been thinking about you.” The most striking thing about this tune is it’s total honesty.
“Coming Down the Road” is another rockabilly number, but with this time more emphasis on the “billy” than the “rock.” Think Sun-era Johnny Cash. In fact, I think Cash would have made a killer cover of this song. The lyrics deal with Mellencamp’s journey down the road of life where he discovers truth and self. Powerful stuff.
“No One Cares About Me” is a rollicking classic honky-tonk track about a man who loses his wife, his job, his kids, his only friend, and has a rocky relationship with his brother. The whole thing would invite tears if it were not so obviously tongue-in-cheek. In that way it reminds me of “John Cockers” from Life, Death, Love and Freedom, but there are also sections of the six-minute song that discuss serious topics and how they relate to common people (“I lost one of my boys to the drug man/It was the only time I cried in my life”).
I fell in love with “Love at First Sight” upon my first listen to it. Mellencamp hasn’t been this lighthearted since at least “Women Seem” back in 2001, if ever. This is the best love song I’ve heard in years, although it does not follow the blueprint for an average love song. Indeed the charming acoustic tune incorporates very clever, sometimes funny, lyrics: he meets a girl, plans their entire lifetime of happiness, imagines a scenario where the romance doesn’t work out with fatal results, and finally reiterates that he is indeed interested. My nature is to drift to the dark side of things. Usually what I like are the angry political songs, the depressing break-up songs, or even murder ballads. However, against all odds, this is my favorite track here, maybe my favorite of his career, and although I rarely play my old acoustic guitar, this is one song that I am definitely learning.
“Don’t Forget About Me” is a pure country tearjerker minus one thing. The vocal delivery is Sam Cooke, not Hank Williams. He and the band pull it off masterfully and the “Sun sound” adds to the song as nothing else can.
“Each Day of Sorrow” is another rockabilly track where Mellencamp addresses religion, what he feels in his soul, and his fear of dying. There is a wonderful guitar solo here and the band manages to sound exactly like the Blue Moon Boys (aka Elvis, Scotty, and Bill).
This is followed by “Easter Eve,” which is the second song here to crack the six-minute mark. I mention that only because I cannot think of a single song on his 24 previous albums that does so. This one is also something of a misfit. It doesn’t sound mere decades old; you must think in terms of centuries to pin down the sound here. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that this is a re-write of a traditional British folk song. The narrative ballad tells the tale of the narrator and his 14-year-old son’s trip to a cafe. “Well, a man approached, said ‘what are you starin’ at?'” Mellencamp sings, “If we didn’t stop gawking he’d take us out back/And teach us some manners, it was simple as that/’Keep your eyes to yourselves, you bastards’.” Eventually the whole thing ends with Mellencamp and his son being arrested, released on bail and winning the hearts of a lady. I don’t know of anybody who writes long, narrative, acoustic folk songs like this anymore and indeed didn’t know Mellencamp did until I heard this track.
“Clumsy Ol’ World” is the final track here and it is another great acoustic folk song, which tells of finding true love in spite of faults. “She don’t eat meat, but she smokes cigarettes/She remembers things that I’m trying to forget,” he says. This song is simple, but sometimes simplicity is the best thing. As is the case here.
I read a few other reviews before writing this and while I won’t mention any names, I must wonder if some of the writers actually listened to the album. They all gave it a very positive review, as it deserves, but they also branded it as following in the footsteps of Life, Death, Love and Freedom. While both could generally be classified as “folk music”, this one is a lot less stark and, while occasionally tackling dark subject matter, contains none of the previous album’s lines about “my upcoming death” or confessions that “I feel like taking my life, but I won’t.” No, the Mellencamp heard here is much more content and, indeed, sounds happier than he has in years. In the press release that accompanied my advance copy of the album, Mellencamp said “It was absolutely the most fun I’ve ever had making a record in my life” and the results reiterate this.
After Mellencamp’s initial period of mainstream rock success and his first experiments with organic instrumentation in the late ’80s, he began to back off a little and released a series of good rock albums throughout the ’90s that, while containing some great stuff, ultimately failed to show what he was capable of. But he has been on a hot streak ever since Trouble No More, his 2003 album of classic folk, country, and blues covers and this may be his best yet. I haven’t made up my mind whether it is as great as Life, Death, Love and Freedom, but I do think that most people, particularly roots music fans, would enjoy it more. Which is not to say you wouldn’t love both. The fact is that they are the two best albums of Mellencamp’s career and as he states on the title track to this one “It don’t get no better than this.”
Painting: “Hillbilly Singer” by John Mellencamp