No Depression Blog: John Mellencamp - No Better Than This Review
07.31.2010 - Click HERE to read No Depression Blogger Adam Sheets's full review of John's new album 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. 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 heard 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. 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
Mellencamp has previously sang the praises of Johnny Cash, hung out with Willie
Nelson, and covered Jimmie Rodgers, Charlie Poole, and Waylon Jennings. He 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
instruments 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: both 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.
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 250-year-old Baptist church in Georgia where slaves used to gather
to worship. A San Antonio hotel room 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. And they took with them 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, almost
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 content and at home, making this a real highlight of the album.
The next track is a mid-temp 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 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 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 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 previous 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.
"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
emtire lifetime of happiness, imagines a scenario where the romance doesn't work
out, 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
"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 released on bail and winning the hearts
of a lady. I don't know anybody who writes long, narrative, acoustic folk songs
like this anymore and indeed didn't know Mellencamp did until I heard this
"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
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".