The Arts Desk: Strictly A One-Eyed Jack Album Review

The Arts Desk  By Liz Thomson

“I didn’t even know what I was writing about. It was just sent to me”, John Mellencamp has said of Strictly A One-Eyed Jack, his first album in five years.

Lauded by Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Nora Guthrie, who sees in his work echoes of her father Woody, and Bruce Springsteen, who is writ large on this his 24th studio album, Mellencamp really does seem to contain multitudes. From the first notes of “I Always Lie to Strangers”, Jack’s opening track, you’re hooked, grabbed by the lapels, and happily held close. The style and mood are reminiscent of Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, his great late Nineties album, while Mellencamp’s voice mostly sits somewhere between Dylan and Tom Waits, with a touch of Steve Earle.

Like many singer-songwriters of his generation – though at 70 he’s a relative youngster – Mellencamp is reckoning with death. Still, there can be no compromises: “I don’t grovel and I don’t bend/I don’t give a fuck where you stand” he sings in “Streets of Galilee”.

A determined activist who’s lent his voice to Vote for Change and Iraq vets among other causes, and who, from its inception, has been a key figure in Farm Aid, Mellencamp offers his austere view of the world where "there's so many crying, and that's all my eyes can see." It’s intimate, straight-talking, a folk-say cautionary tale: “the end of the rainbow, turns out it’s not somewhere/ Look around it’s everywhere for anyone who cares”. It’s One-Eyed Jack speaking throughout: looking back, looking forwards, thinking aloud, pontificating – perhaps allowing Mellencamp to go places he hasn’t previously gone. John Steinbeck would be proud.

There are three cuts with Springsteen: the single “Wasted Days”, all distinctive tight harmonies and great guitar solos - think Traveling Wilburys; “Did You Say Such a Thing”; and “A Life Full of Rain”. “Gone Too Soon”, bluesy and elegiac, is perhaps the album’s highpoint with its scrumptious, keyboards, horns and percussion and a vocal in which Mellencamp seems to be channelling Louis Armstrong.

It’s a well-paced album, a reminder in these pick ‘n’ mix days that thoughtful artists do indeed give great thought to how a suite of songs comes together. As a whole, in its entirety, is how we should listen to Strictly A One-Eyed Jack. It’s a profound album that deserves no less. The heart of Americana.