Republic Records – 2014
By Jay Roberts - Pop-topia.com
“I’m dining alone on the bread of sorrow” – from the song “The Company of Cowards”.
While listening to the new John Mellencamp album, I wondered to myself if the artist had a monumental revelation of some sort. I say this because Mellencamp has written and recorded a sublimely brilliant album that combines a deeply aged musical soundtrack with what could be seen as an authoritative treatise demonstrating how to craft superlative lyrics.
The quote at the start of this review is just one of many that stand out throughout the entirety of Plain Spoken.
The album was executive produced T-Bone Burnett (who has worked Mellencamp in the past) and it is set up with this almost defiantly old fashioned style. There’s not a lot of extraneous noise in the songs. The “formula” seems to be steeped in the “Keep It Simple” standard. This allows for the music and lyrics to be the focus, instead of being the afterthought of the bells and whistles.
The track listing on the back of the CD is broken down into “Side A” and “Side B” and there is also a poem/set of lyrics for a song that doesn’t actually appear on the disc. They are quite interesting and I would’ve loved hearing the lyrics set to music. They also immediately whet the appetite for what is to come with the songs.
Plain Spoken opens with “Troubled Man”. (You can see the video below) It was the first track released from the disc prior to the album being released. It is the first of a number of songs with provocative titles. The titles alone made me want to listen to see what they would end up being all about. As for “Troubled Man”, it starts off slow but hits a more mid-tempo stride soon enough. It takes even less time for the gravel voiced performance from Mellencamp to draw you into a tale of a man realizing that “too late came too early for me to face myself”.
For those that either are or think they are a variation of troubled men, the lyrical couplet “Always traveled the hellfire road / To chase the sweet smell of sin” should resonate quite strongly.
I don’t know if it is a natural evolution of his voice, but the way he sings on this disc reminds me a little of Tom Waits or Ryan Bingham. Obviously he’s somewhere in between the two but I liked the decision to not smooth out the rougher edges in his voice here.
One thing that has separated Mellencamp from his peers is the ability to straddle the lines between the pop, rock and country genres. On “Sometimes There’s God”, the song might initially come off as a standard religious based country track, but Mellencamp twists things up to make it a song that both the godly and those of lesser faith will like. He stakes out ground as a believer but allows for doubt with the lyric “Sometimes there’s God / And sometimes there’s just not.” It is definitely not something you would hear voiced in an actual country song and it makes the song work tremendously well.
While there isn’t a whole lot of rock and roll (like his early days) on this album, the pacing of the songs keeps the energy level up. Instead of settling for an acoustic guitar dirge, there’s a little bit of everything musically speaking. There’s a sweet bluesy guitar, solid work from the rhythm section as well as the thematic setting acoustic guitar. ZZZMellencamp1
The bluesy guitar is most evident in the closing track “Lawless Times”. It is the song that comes closest to a full on rocker of the 10 songs on the disc. It’s a bluesy stomp in both musical tempo and lyrics. He uses a velvet hammer in the writing to touch on a number of societal ills but doesn’t cross over into overkill while doing so.
With “The Brass Ring”, you find yourself in the midst of a conversation between two people. It is a bit of an odd turn and another song that touches on social awareness, but the song works surprisingly well. And what really sealed the deal for me was the line in the chorus “A murder of crows did sing”.
Backtracking a minute to where I mentioned how Mellencamp can at times sound like a country artist – the best example of this would be the track “Freedom of Speech”. You also have “The Courtesy of Kings” which tells the story of a woman you can’t help but love despite knowing she’ll continually break your heart. This is clearly delineated in the lyrical passage “She had the face of an angel / And a smile no one could deny / But the heart of a devil / Beat deep down in her inside”.
There really isn’t a bad song on Plain Spoken, but the track that stood out for me as the best representative of the disc was “The Isolation of Mister”. With the exception of one line in the lyrics, my first impression upon hearing the song was that Mellencamp somehow was writing about me or at least a semi past tense version of myself.
I found this passage compelling: “Never looked forward to the future / Never enjoyed where I’ve been / Couldn’t keep my mind in the moment / Never really cared if I had a friend”
Of course, some of the things in the song that I connected with so strongly given how I felt the same way have recently been given a dramatic makeover. But when Mellencamp sings “I always felt like the sorrow was a lesson / I always felt I need to feel the pain / I thought happiness was a transgression / And I just took it as it came”, I can or could easily nod my head in agreement.
But the mistakes of those lyrics are acknowledged with “Now maybe I played it all wrong / Been so indifferent about so many things / About my time and my rage / Thought I was livin’ a life of freedom / But I was living in a cage”
How about that? A song that makes you think and realize that while you weren’t the intended target of the lyrics, you can see yourself in them. John Mellencamp is billed as “The Voice of the Heartland” on a sticker that you find on the wrapping around the album. But it is readily apparent he can find ways to seem as if he’s speaking for anyone/everyone regardless of geographic location.
I’ve held the Mellencamp albums The Lonesome Jubilee and Human Wheels as the prime examples of the artist at his best. But Plain Spoken should be added to that list. It is an example of what music can do when in the hands of someone at the height of their craft. It is startling brilliant collection of songs that can connect with listeners on a deeply emotional level.
Plainly stated, Plain Spoken is magnificent.