Performing Songwriter Magazine - Featured Review July-August 2008

One of America’s original journeyman rockers—a distinction shared with Springsteen, Fogerty and Seger—John Mellencamp begins his affiliation with superstar-laden Hear Music by pulling up roots and returning to the heartland. Of course, Mellencamp’s Everyman attitude has generally reflected homespun values, from the compelling refrain of “Pink Houses” lamenting suburban sprawl to the populist appeal of “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” and the sepia-tinged nostalgia cushioning “Jack and Diane.” But while albums like Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee have found him traversing equally rustic terrain, the lack of commercial concern is especially apparent here.

Consequently, this set of revisionist folk songs is so immersed in authenticity, it could have been spawned in the Mississippi Delta or ripped from Woody Guthrie’s songbook. With the venerable T Bone Burnett behind the boards, the parched, stripped-down settings befit these weathered tales, even as Mellencamp’s coarse vocals echo the weariness and woes the album’s sweeping title implies. The turgid rumination imbued in “Longest Days,” “Young Without Lovers,” “Without a Shot” and “Country Fair” may surprise, and indeed, there’s little evidence of Mellencamp’s radio-ready past … the soulful sway of “Mean” and “Troubled Land” notwithstanding.

A bonus high-definition DVD offers enhanced sound, but ultimately, it’s the unlikely mesh of intimacy and insurgency that affirms Mellencamp’s status as an American original. —LZ

Bruce Springsteen – Devils and Dust
Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind
Steve Earle – The Mountain
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