NJ Star-Ledger: No Better Than This Review

NJ Starledger By Tris McCall

Mellencamp is on the record saying he invented alt-country back when he was still a Cougar. Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t, but he sure knows his way around the style. On “No Better Than This,” a lonesome tumbleweed of an album, he beats the Dust Bowl revivalists at their own game.

How’d he do it? Some credit must go to producer T Bone Burnett, who recorded the musicians in gloriously grim mono with a single microphone. The liner notes say there were no overdubs or second takes or fancy mixing tricks and, for once, you’ll believe it. Even had Burnett used wax cylinders, he couldn’t have gotten a sound any more antique.

Then there are the sidemen: guitarist Marc Ribot and his alligator tone, drummer Jay Bellerose, last seen taking a similar Greyhound bus ride with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and Burnett himself, master of august Americana. He’s brought the Mellencamp band to haunted territory, including Sun Studio in Memphis and the San Antonio hotel room where bluesman Robert Johnson recorded “Dust My Broom.” (In the name of authenticity, or maybe just fandom, Burnett even asked Mellencamp to sing into the same corner that Johnson did.)

The album’s crumpled-shirt sound augments Mellencamp’s storytelling. He’s always been able to bring down-and-out Everyman characters to life, and he’s outdone himself here: The narrators on “No Better Than This” are a lost lot, halfway to the grave, staggering toward the gates of a heaven they’re not sure they even want. “This ain’t no picnic I’m livin’,” croaks Mellencamp on “Right Behind Me, “just a resting place before it’s time to go.” Psyches fray, relationships dissolve; one character loses his boy to the drug man, while another works up the courage to call an old girlfriend only to have his heart break when her sound-alike daughter picks up the phone.

The set climaxes with “Easter Eve,” a story about a father and his 14-year-old son caught up in a bar fight. When their assailant pulls a gun, you think you know where this is going: Another Mellencamp narrator is about to lose what’s most precious to him. Instead — surprise! — the son mops the floor with the drunk. Even as they’re carted off to jail, it’s weirdly uplifting. It’s the veteran rocker at his finest, squeezing some hard-won wisdom out of trying times.