4 out of 5 Stars No Better Than This Review

The Screen Door By Anthony Kuzminski

When sightseeing around the world, we lug cameras to seize the moment in time. Last summer when John Mellencamp was on tour, he went one step further and brought along a portable 1955 Ampex recording machine and a single microphone. The end result, his second straight masterwork on the domestic and peripheral trials and tribulations of the America in the 21st Century paired with a mid-20th Century production. If touring with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan wasn’t enough for him, he set-up shop in Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee then in Room 414 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas and finally The First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia. What differentiates respectable artists from distinguished ones is the capacity to incorporate the aura of the past more so than merely replicating it. One listen to John Mellencamp’s 20th studio record, No Better Than This and without a doubt in my mind, you hear someone channeling the spirits of the past. With producer T-Bone Burnett along for the ride, they crafted the haunting and rustic Life, Death, Love and Freedom which proved to be an epic confessional few of Mellencamp’s contemporaries could even match. The aptitude to convey feelings and lessons hand-in-hand is a powerful one. At times it can be misguided but with a heavy heart John Mellencamp may be at his creative crest over the last few years and No Better Than This is a living example. While Mellencamp may be leaning his sound towards the past, he’s capturing the ache of the world in lyrics that are full of cold fury and pleas for redemption. Nine of the album’s thirteen songs were cut in Sun Studio in Memphis and amidst the spare instrumentation and mono sound you can feel the ambiance of those great Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis records from the 1950’s. The restrained instrumentation helps entrench the lyrical emotions. It’s a rich record, steeped in the folk and blues of our countries past with themes that pinch you in the present.

While Mellencamp stretches back to the depression era folk aesthetic of the 1930’s he also is able to emulate the 1950’s Sun Studios joie de vivre and encapsulate it all with a current day outlook. But instead of living in the past, he merely evokes the aural aesthetic and throws himself into the songs. Most artists have been so built up by managers, record labels, promoters and their fans they view any type of personal narrative as a sign of weakness. It’s one thing to provide commentary on world events that don’t affect you and another to dig from within, show your aches and bruises and find a way to weave the songs together to construct a revered proclamation. Trust me, this is an impracticable task. I’ve seen artists try and fail miserably. An artist’s career is much like their life. The older they get, the wiser they become. The autumn of their life has the potential to be opulent and verdant just like the changing and beaming colors of leaves on a tree. One isn’t better than another but instead of chasing eternal summer, Mellencamp has grasped what has been handed to him and like a shot in the dark he embraces not just the past but the haunted ghosts of social decay that infiltrate and infect our society in 2010. Instead of trying to write a love song that can heal the world, he’s poetically tells distressing tales with a veiled and unflinching sense of optimism. An ongoing theme of the record is as we ponder our life choices it’s more critical to learn from them than dwell on them; they’re in the past and the only way we can fix them is by moving onward. The songs on No Better Than This are striking compelling multigenerational narratives with universal themes.

The faceless criminals of a corrupt society make their mark on “The West End”, in a dead-end street echo (“Look what progress did/ Someone lined their pockets / I don’t know who that is”). The narrator on “A Graceful Fall” is retreating from life (“Yeah I’m sick of life”). The despondent brush stroke drumming and pining guitars echo a troubling finishing nail in the coffin of their existence. “Thinking About You” questions “what could have been”? This isn’t the mere reminiscence of the Scarecrow era but a yearning tale of lost love. The narrator let someone slip through his hands and now he just wants to let her know that she left an impression on his thoughts all these years later. The details in the song’s lyrics, “I bet they’ve torn down that playground down/ Where I first met you” are terribly lucid placing the listener on that playground as the wind moves the empty swings. “Coming Down the Road” gives a tip-of-the-hate to the late Johnny Cash with storming force hoisted by a burning vocal. He empathizes with those in agony while urging them to see what they have in front of them. Like a psychologist he’s acknowledging the grief of the present and steering them toward the light in the hopes they can find the answer they need. “No One Cares About Me” with its hop-skip-jump percussion and wheezy electric guitar tells a solemn fable of seclusion. After a life of regrets he can see the error of his ways but is still lined with the potential for redemption (“There surely must be some angels around the bend/And they’re trying to get to me/I’ll catch up with them pretty soon”). “Love At First Sight” imagines all of the peaks and valleys of a marriage with a shot of humor (“And let’s supposed you found another man/ And hit me in the head with a frying pan”). “Don’t Forget About Me” is one of the greatest tales of longing ever committed to tape. The brief tale of longing accentuated by its Santo and Johnny guitar is frail but make no mistake, it’s a tale of hushed torture. “Each Day of Sorrow” finds a man without religion or love and is walking through life aimlessly backed by Andy York’s strutting guitar. “Easter Eve” with its plaintive acoustic strumming tells a vivid 6-minute tale that wraps up family, violence and rescue. “Clumsy Ol’ World” finds two people who shouldn’t be together but the strength of love seems to surmount all their inconsistencies and the track ends with a giddy laugh from Mellencamp making you think twice about what you just heard. It’s as if he is in on a joke which holds some riddles to life we’ve yet to uncover.

Despite the solemn and spare arrangements, No Better Than This does house moments of internal triumph and this is where the other songs find their balance. On the album’s title cut that Mellencamp pulls both worlds together in a blissful release of mind and body. Musically “No Better Than This” hustles along like a 1959 Cadillac Convertible in a moment of lucidity where the answers to life can be found on cheap thrills and a clear conscience. Desperate times call for desperate measures and by evoking the past, Mellencamp tries to steer the listener towards emancipation through the power of nostalgia to times where people were infinitely happier with infinitely less. He speaks to the listener like an astute elder who can relate to their strains. The album opens with the wonderfully evocative “Save Some Time To Dream”. Its brushstroke percussion and Andy York’s dour guitars aren’t likely to light up pop stations, but like “Longest Days” (the opening cut from Life, Death, Love and Freedom) it’s without question, one of Mellencamp’s furthermost triumphs as a songwriter. The song is the purest tale of love encouraging one to embrace life’s unadorned pleasures even when the mountains to climb seem insufferable. In one particular passage, he encourages you to embrace the tough times; “Save some time for sorrow/ Cause it will surely come your way/Prepare yourself for failure/It will give you strength someday”. Love, hope, desolation, broken hearts, desperation, consolation and inspiration spew forth in these thirteen songs but beneath them, one line permeates above them all; “A dream might save us all”.