AllMusic.com By Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Orpheus Descending follows quickly on the heels of Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, the 2022 album that found John Mellencamp returning after a five-year silence. There, he invited Bruce Springsteen into the studio for a few songs, a nod to their shared past as heartland rockers. Here, the guest isn't as big a star, but the connection may run deeper. Much of Orpheus Descending features a returning Lisa Germano, the violinist who played with the rocker from 1987's The Lonesome Jubilee through 1998's John Mellencamp, tending to an adventurous solo career all the while. Germano's presence accentuates how Mellencamp is returning to the earthy, rangy roots rock of Big Daddy, a sound that seemed slightly out of time in the 1980s and now feels somewhat traditional; Mellencamp's blend of sinewy rhythms and burnished acoustics is recognizably his, yet it draws upon a sound that's now part of a shared past. It's a sound that's aged well, and Mellencamp has aged within it. His voice has been weathered to a nub; he now sounds eternal, even primal. His leathery croak helps give this lean, direct music a gravelly anchor that Germano offsets with her lithe, graceful support. Listening to their interplay gives Orpheus Descending an unexpected emotional kick that helps the record transcend the occasional overly literal lyric from Mellencamp, such as the lead single "The Eyes of Portland."