PopMatters.com: Mellencamp's New Release An Old-School Masterpiece No Better Than This 9 out of 10 Review
08.18.2010 - PopMatters.com 9 out of 10 - By Rod Lockwood
Mellencamp's new release an old-school masterpiece
John Mellencamp calls No Better Than This his “most rebellious record ever” and
who are we to argue? No disrespect to Mellencamp, but it’s not like his long
career has been filled with crazy detours into free form jazz and electronica.
He’s never gone Christian, never done anything like his pal Lou Reed and set an
entire album to Edgar Allen Poe’s writing, never fully challenged his audience.
About the most risky thing he’s done is offer up one of his better late career
songs, “Our Country”, to a truck commercial, which probably paid off handsomely
in his bank account, but soured a lot of people on his music because of the
tune’s ubiquity and jingoistic vibe.
All that said, No Better Than This is something for which Mellencamp was long
overdue: a defining album that resets his creative clock and reminds everyone
how great a songwriter and musician that he really is. Because this, his 19th
studio album, is truly brilliant and it’s as good as anything he’s ever
released, which is saying a lot. Dylan had Time Out of Mind, Springsteen had The
Rising, and any number of Mellencamp’s less popular peers—John Hiatt, Graham
Parker, Greg Brown—have all made albums that reinvigorated their relevancy and
made us return to their newer work hungry for more.
What makes No Better Than This so great is its consistency and artistic
commitment. Mellencamp recorded it in a creative burst while on tour with Willie
Nelson and Bob Dylan. With T-Bone Burnett as his producer, he’d take quick
breaks from the road and visit iconic studios across the country, recording
where blues legend Robert Johnson did in San Antonio or in the historic Sun
Studios. U2 tried something like this with Rattle and Hum in the late ‘80s and
it came across pretentious and gimmicky. In Mellencamp’s hands the recording
process is not only a tribute to the masters, but also the ideal way to bring
these 13 songs to life. It makes sense that music this personal and intimate be
recorded this way, with a group of musicians standing together in a room,
playing at the same time without the benefit of overdubs and studio trickery.
The fact that it’s in mono could come across as a silly reach for lo-fi cred,
sort of a “fuck you” to the heavily compressed, over-produced music that’s on
the radio now. Instead, the decision is logical for these songs and feels less
like a statement and more like a commonsense artistic decision. You don’t want
to hear something as dark and spooky as “The West End” in pristine stereo, just
as you can’t imagine the gentle “Thinking About You” spruced up and blasting out
of the speakers.
These are songs that are meant to sound like they have some dust on them.
Mellencamp sings in a relaxed voice, never shouting and while some of the songs
have an anthemic quality lingering in the background, he doesn’t jack up the
energy. Thank goodness, because something like the bluesy cautionary tale “Right
Behind Me” with its declaration, “This ain’t no picnic I’m living, just a
resting place before I go” would sound mighty strange in any other format.
Recording on a 55-year-old Ampex mono tape machine, the musicians—acoustic
guitar, fiddle, bass, mandolin, drums and a few electric guitars on the
rockers—cut them after a few takes, giving the songs a fresh feeling and
nothing’s over cooked.
Finally, “No Better Than This” feels deeply personal, from the lyrics to the way
Mellencamp chooses to present the music. He’s working in classic idioms –-
rockabilly on the title cut, Johnny Cash-like vintage rocking on “Coming Down
the Road”, John Prine folk on the sly, funny “Love at First Sight” and the
closer “Clumsy Ol’ World”—that are familiar and comfortable. At the same time,
he has something to say and while it seems clear he’s often singing about
himself (although one never knows), it feels an awful like he’s singing to all
The first track, “Save Some Time to Dream” is an open-hearted call to take care
of yourself and everyone around you. Lyrics like “Try to keep your mind open and
accept your mistakes / Save some time for livin’ and always question your faith
/ Could it be that this is all there is? / Could it be that there’s nothin’
more? / Save some time to dream, ‘cos your dream might save us all” have a
nakedness that feels like an old friend calling up to check in and give you a
Dream references pop up in various songs, along with ruminations on mortality.
There’s a timeless vibe throughout, with the country tune “A Graceful Fall”
sounding like something that would come out of an old radio in the 1950s.
“Easter Eve” is a strange, Dylan-like story song in which the protagonist’s
14-year-old son ends up getting in a fight with some guy in a bar the night
before Easter and the events in the tune could be taking place now or 40 years
ago. “Thinking About You” starts out with the singer saying he’s not nostalgic
before spending the rest of the song addressing an old girlfriend who he’s dying
to check in on just to see how she’s doing.
These kind of images—personal, intimate, timeless—pop up all over No Better Than
This. It’s mature without being boring and anyone of a certain age, say over 40,
can’t help but relate to Mellencamp’s message. The album’s closest relation
among his previous albums is “Big Daddy”, the pensive 1989 release that
finalized his transition from pop star to crafty singer/songwriter. But No
Better Than This is a step beyond his best work, revelatory and free, the sound
of a man who’s unshackled from commercial considerations or outside influences.
And ironically, it’s a record that could’ve been made in 1954, which means it
comes out of the speakers sounding remarkably fresh and new.
What could be more rebellious than that?