Heyheymymy.com: No Better Than This Review

heyheymymy.com By Andrew Watt

Mellencamp takes a ramble down another path, and this time it’s a path that winds deep into the past and arrives at a location that makes the most possible contemporary sense.

Mind you if you are going to go wandering down dark paths into the past of American music its best you take a knowledgeable tour guide and there is no better tour guide than T Bone Burnett, the producer of this album.

The album was initially recorded at the First Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, a location steeped in history as a key stop in the Underground railroad. The songs were recorded on a single 40’s microphone into 55 year old tape player with the band in a circle around that sole microphone. Later some of the songs were reworked at Sun Studios with the same (lack of) technology with others recorded again in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, the exact location of early Robert Johnson recordings.

The album was recorded in mono and released on the historic blues and roots label Rounder Records.

Now all of this could have been an elaborate way to contrive some sort of roots credibility and accordingly it could have been a big mistake if it weren’t for the fact that the songs are absolutely authentic and amongst the most legitimate body of work in Mellencamp’s career.

See, the thing about John Mellencamp is that he’s really, genuinely, got no need nor desire to be a rock star and thus when he strips away the vestiges and crutches of a rock star’s recording approach he does so with complete conviction and not a hint of regret or misgiving. And its that sense of conviction that makes No Better Than This a triumph above and beyond the sum of its authentic sounding parts and places.

These are songs that could have been written any time in the last hundred years and have had equal application to the writers set of circumstances.

No One Cares About Me sounds like its written about a lonely drifter in the tradition of Steinbeck’s America but on closer examination it as likely to be set in Obama’s America. Similarly Love At First Sight “feels” like it’s a Baby Boomer battlers love story, but again it’s just as possible its about two kids struggling to make their way in 2010. Jack and Diane indeed!

On Easter Eve Mellencamp creates a fable of a man, his son, a drunk, a woman and a bar brawl. There’s a happy ending to the superbly constructed story but for all its countrified elegance the story could just as easily have been ripped from the pages of tomorrows Herald Sun.

Save Some Time To Dream opens the album in a laconic shuffling way and it’s tone of offering advice about ‘life and how to live it’ sounds both whimsical and apologetic.

On Thinking About You, Mellencamp opens with “It’s not my nature/ To be nostalgic at all” and then details his multiple efforts to contact an old flame just to say he’d been “thinking about you”. The self deprecating tone of the song its wryly humorous and it’s the kind of song that should be getting covered in another hundred years when someone gets some perspective on the nostalgia that underpins much of the “social networking revolution”.

Appropriately Right Behind Me was one of the songs recorded in the Gunter Hotel and as an update on the battle between Jesus and the Devil that Robert Johnson described so graphically it is the closest you get to a song haunted by the place of its creation. But it remains very much a Mellencamp original work.

That’s the beauty of this album. It would have been just as easy (actually way easier) for Mellencamp and Burnett to make it a journey through an American roots songbook and record a tribute to the blues and folk forefathers. He could have done a Leadbelly song, a Robert Johnson song, a Pete Seeger song and he would have done great versions of those songs. But that would have been an album of a rock star on holiday, and that’s not what Mellencamp is.

I’m just glad that he had the courage to acknowledge that and the result is one of the most striking pieces of work of his career.