UCC.org No Better Than This Review
08.30.2010 - UCC.org By Brian Q. Newcomb
The first time I heard John Mellencamp's voice it was the single from his debut
album, under the name of Cougar. As I recall he sang, "I need a lover that won't
drive me crazy, someone that'll love me and just go away." Songs like "Hurts So
Good" and "Jack & Diane" followed, fun pop/rock songs with sensible pop hooks
but somewhat silly lyrics. Still, by the time he was singing of "Rain on the
Scarecrow" it had become clear that he was growing into an artist capable of
great depth and perception.
His songs of "Small Town" life in middle America's "Pink Houses" were all about
how to "R.O.C.K. In the USA," smartly mixing social consciousness about race
relations, poverty and the devolution of the American dream with catchy
pop-friendly sing-along anthems. "Wild Night" (the Van Morrison song) and
"Peaceful World" found him celebrating life and connecting with pop radio
tastes, but as he aged the recordings have gotten more and more serious—like
2003's "Trouble No More" (mostly covers of blues, folk and roots rock icons) and
'08's "Life, Death, Love and Freedom"—taking on the music of his past and
reflecting on the meaning of the present and the uncertainty of what is coming.
Last summer, while touring minor league ball parks in the middle slot between
Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, Mellencamp was heading off to historic recording
venues to lay down tracks for this new collection of 13 songs, all written in a
quick two week burst of creativity the Spring of '09. Returning to work with
producer T Bone Burnett (Robert Randolph, the "O Brother Where Art Thou"
soundtrack), Mellencamp takes these simple songs completely old school,
recording in several of roots rock and blues' more historic locations.
Nine of the thirteen tracks were recorded in Sun Studios in Memphis, where Sam
Phillips made some of rock & roll's iconic hits with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins
and Johnny Cash. Three were cut at the Savannah First African Baptist Church,
designated as the first Black church in North America, pre-dating the
Revolutionary War, an historic place of sanctuary and a stop on the underground
railroad as escaping slaves made their way north.
That last song, "Right Behind Me," was recorded in a very special place, room
414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. Influential blues great Robert
Johnson recorded 16 classic songs in that room in 1936, reportedly playing
facing into the corner. "Right Behind Me" with its talk of an inner spiritual
warfare, is appropriate to the Faustian myth that shadows Johnson's short-lived
career. Mellencamp sings of the tension between good and the compulsion to act
selfishly: "I know Jesus, I know the devil, they're both inside of me all the
time. This ain't no picnic I'm living... the devil, he thinks he's got me, but
he ain't got me, no. He ain't got me, no, no, no."
"No Better Than This," reflecting a sense that life is a challenging mix, not
unlike the Jack Nicholson character that said that maybe the brokenness and
confusion of life is "As Good As It Gets" finds Mellencamp's grim assessment
that "Each day of sorrow brings me closer to goodbye, if I wasn't so afraid, I'd
lay down and die." That the song is performed with a bit of roots rock swagger,
is a testament to Mellencamp's gritty charm and wit. He sings, "I ain't been
baptized, I ain't got no church, no friend in Jesus…" but the press release
liner notes say that before they set up to record at Savannah First, both
Mellencamp and his wife Elaine were baptized there. This suggests that he's
finding that there's more to this life than meets the eye.
Recorded with studious commitment to capturing the moment, using old tape
technology, recording live takes in mono, Burnett and Mellencamp have eschewed
the modern fetish for perfection that can leave music sounding polished but
soulless. Besides Mellencamp and Burnett, longtime friend Andy York and the
inimitable Marc Ribot play guitars, creating a lose, folksy feel depending on
the requirements of each track, occasionally throwing in the violin of Miriam
Sturm (also from Mellencamp's band). At Sun Studios they took the positions,
marked with an "X" on the floor by historic producer Sam Phillips and performed
in the same formation as on Elvis' originally recordings.
Together with this great material, the recording adds to this being the best
work from Mellencamp all the way back to that "Scarecrow" album, and "The
Lonesome Jubilee." At 59 years of age, Mellencamp has come to terms with the
complexities, the push and pull of human existence and made a truce that allows
his art to deal authentically with the whole complicated mess. "No One Cares
About Me' is his own "Poor Pitiful Me," "Easter Eve" is an Irish drinking story
song that mixes family, lust and fighting, and in the end Mellencamp celebrates
the delicate balance of "A Graceful Fall" in this "Clumsy Ol' World." Cautious
but hopeful on the opening track, "Save Some Time to Dream" – the one new song
he sang at Fifth Third Field in Dayton, Ohio, last summer between Willie and
Dylan – which dares to believe that it's our capacity to hope, to dream that may
just save us all someday.