Riff Magazine: Review: John Mellencamp Searches For Rainbows On ‘Strictly a One-Eyed Jack’

Riff Magazine By Sam Richards

The course of John Mellencamp has been fairly well established for the past 20 years or so. It consists of tales of lessons learned (or not) along the hard road of life, set largely to acoustic music with one foot firmly in Americana and the other on stage with the boisterous band playing Saturday night at the neighborhood bar.

Almost 30 albums into a career that started with performing under a gimmicky name assigned by a manager, the onetime Johnny Cougar has long since shaken off any such shackles, having evolved into a dependable voice speaking out against various forms of oppression and injustice, both societal and personal.

Strictly a One-Eyed Jack continues in this vein, which has been the norm for Mellencamp longer than the earlier hitmaking phase in the 1980s and early ’90s that made him famous in the first place. No longer the young voice of “Jack and Diane,” his talk-singing reflects every bit of his 70 years, and at times on Strictly a One-Eyed Jack veers close to full-on Tom Waits. That ravaged voice, though, is perfectly suited to this set of BS-free songs, with credibility that comes mostly from a place of desolate resignation.

On “I Always Lie to Strangers” and “I Am a Man That Worries,” John Mellencamp describes a man who’s been damaged, deals with it as he can and offers no apologies. “I’ve never taken the high road home … the old low road seems to get me there first,” he says on “Strangers.” And it doesn’t take him long to turn his aim outward: “This world is run by men much more crooked than me.”

Those songs, and much of Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, address Mellencamp himself, and that self-assessment is often brutal. And the backdrop is mostly acoustic guitars, fiddles, accordions and unobtrusive drumming. “Driving in the Rain” offers loping acoustic strumming and accordion atmospherics behind a song about memories of an earlier, more positive time. “Streets of Galilee,” with its starkly beautiful guitar-and-piano backing, is from the viewpoint of a man who admits to being a loser on a downward spiral.

It isn’t until the fifth song in, “Sweet Honey Brown,” that the music on One-Eyed Jack comes from out of the shadows a bit, with its assertive drumming and electric guitar bursts from Andy York, a longtime collaborator of Mellencamp and of Ian Hunter and others. Another old friend, Mike Wanchic, a guitarist in Mellencamp’s ’80s bands, shows up on two tracks.

“Did You Say Such a Thing” and “Wasted Days” are also both upbeat musically, thanks in part to Bruce Springsteen’s guitar solos and singing (harmonies on the former, switching off lead singing in the latter). While “Wasted Days” is about not letting life’s opportunities slip away, “Did You Say” is Mellencamp decrying smack talk against him. While it’s one of the few songs on this album to recall an earlier Mellencamp era (Big Daddy and Whenever We Wanted from the early ’90s, perhaps), its air of personal angst reflects more recent concerns.

And this is a development that suits John Mellencamp well, even if he sometimes comes off embittered. But one man’s “embittered” can for another be shedding light on an injustice, and that’s something Mellencamp’s been doing since he sang of little “Pink Houses” many years ago. There’s nothing here that sounds like that 1983 hit, which is fine, of course. And though he finally strikes a note of optimism on “Chasing Rainbows,” in which he says the end of the rainbow is not just anywhere but everywhere “for anyone who cares,” “A Life Full of Rain” ends things on a note of despair. “A life full of rain, with no dry place to stand,” he sings. This American icon has earned the right to say what he wants, but perhaps he should hold tighter onto the rainbows he does find.