Performing Songwriter Magazine LDL&F Album Review
Featured review in the July-August 2008 issue
One of America’s original journeyman rockers—a distinction shared with
Springsteen, Fogerty and Seger—John Mellencamp begins his affiliation with
superstar-laden Hear Music by pulling up roots and returning to the heartland.
Of course, Mellencamp’s Everyman attitude has generally reflected homespun
values, from the compelling refrain of “Pink Houses” lamenting suburban sprawl
to the populist appeal of “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” and the sepia-tinged
nostalgia cushioning “Jack and Diane.” But while albums like Scarecrow and The
Lonesome Jubilee have found him traversing equally rustic terrain, the lack of
commercial concern is especially apparent here.
Consequently, this set of revisionist folk songs is so immersed in authenticity,
it could have been spawned in the Mississippi Delta or ripped from Woody
Guthrie’s songbook. With the venerable T Bone Burnett behind the boards, the
parched, stripped-down settings befit these weathered tales, even as
Mellencamp’s coarse vocals echo the weariness and woes the album’s sweeping
title implies. The turgid rumination imbued in “Longest Days,” “Young Without
Lovers,” “Without a Shot” and “Country Fair” may surprise, and indeed, there’s
little evidence of Mellencamp’s radio-ready past … the soulful sway of “Mean”
and “Troubled Land” notwithstanding.
A bonus high-definition DVD offers enhanced sound, but ultimately, it’s the
unlikely mesh of intimacy and insurgency that affirms Mellencamp’s status as an
American original. —LZ