New York Times No Better Than This Review

New York Times By Jon Pareles

John Mellencamp, 58, backdates himself on “No Better Than This,” his 21st studio album. With the producer T Bone Burnett, who also collaborated on Mr. Mellencamp’s 2008 “Life, Death, Love and Freedom,” Mr. Mellencamp recorded in mono on quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape, sharing a single vintage microphone with his band. Working in hallowed rock and blues locations, they recorded nine songs at Sun Studio (with the band positioned as Elvis Presley’s group was) and one in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where Robert Johnson sang blues masterpieces in 1936. Three others used the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., which calls itself “the oldest black church in North America.”

The pilgrimages didn’t humble Mr. Mellencamp. They spurred him to compete with history. In Memphis, he went for bass-slapping, reverb-guitar rockabilly. In San Antonio, he sang (as Johnson did) about being pursued by the Devil, with ragtimey guitar plunking and bluesy violin. Throughout, he relies on refrains rather than choruses and writes plenty of verses, more like traditional ballads (or Woody Guthrie songs) than pop hits. Yet behind the period arrangements and the antique haze of the production, they’re still Mellencamp songs. They can be wry and plainspoken, like the waltzing tall tale “Easter Eve,” or earnest and overreaching, like the attempted workingman’s parable “The West End.”

The album continues Stage 3 of a career in which Mr. Mellencamp has been a hit-making bad-boy rocker and then a concerned (and still hit-making) heartland Everyman. Since 2003, when he made “Trouble No More,” a collection of old blues and folk songs, he has been a grizzled codger taking the long view, pondering mortality and the meaning of life.

Though the title song is a happy foot-stomper, it’s outnumbered by testimonials about being a man alone, abandoned by lovers and family and unsure of faith. The singer considers suicide, in “A Graceful Fall” and “Each Day of Sorrow,” undercutting self-pity with springy Memphis backbeats. He weathers betrayal and solitude in “No One Cares About Me” and in “Don’t Forget About Me,” which promises undying love while hurling accusations. And he manages a crooked grin in “Love at First Sight,” imagining a lifelong relationship in a glance, and in “Clumsy Ol’ World,” about how opposites attract.

As much as any programmed, multitracked pop extravaganza, “No Better Than This” is inseparable from its technology. But the songs aren’t revivalist imitations; they would be terser if they were. Mr. Mellencamp is a disillusioned grown-up echoing the sounds of brash young men. He can’t undo the ravages and lessons of time, any more than rock is going back to mono.