Something Else Reviews No Better Than This By Nick Deriso

While John Mellencamp continues a run of career-defining records, dating back to 2007's "Freedom's Road," best leave your dancing shoes in the closet.

Producer T Bone Burnett cops to it, in the liner notes to "No Better Than This," set for release Aug. 17 on Rounder Records: "All those ghosts. All those spirits. This is a haunted record."

It's not just that "No Better Than This" is an old-fashioned project done in an old-fashioned way: Mellencamp and Burnett used a half-century old monophonic tape recorder and a single, vintage microphone, without overdubs or other studio add-ons.

These 13 songs were also written in a mirrored 13 days, on days off across the Deep South during last summer's tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Mellencamp and Burnett set up shop at Memphis' Sun Studios, where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins launched their legends; at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., where the Underground Railroad once sparked a dream of escape for enslaved African Americans; and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, where doomed blues legend Robert Johnson made world-changing recordings of "Dust My Broom" and "Terraplane Blues" for Brunswick Records.

Each spot provided, perhaps to no one's surprise, some powerful mojo.

Poet Richard Hugo, in "The Triggering Town," talked about how these kind of environments, even glimpsed from a passing car or across the street from a local bar, can spark creativity -- becoming a jumping-off point to some deeper thought. He says something else in that book that resonates here: "All truth must conform to music."

What makes "No Better Than This" so remarkable is how Mellencamp internalizes both sentiments, embracing a sound that gets older and older with every new song -- but also boldly rebuking the earliest hopes of his own pop-star prepackaging as Johnny Cougar. "It's not a graceful fall," he writes, "from dreams to the truth."

Shadows gather all around this record: "Give me back my youth," Mellencamp sings on the rollicking title track, "and don't let me waste it this time; stand me up at the golden gates at the front of the line; let me lie in the sunshine, covered in the morning mist; then show me something I ain't never seen -- but it won't get no better than this.”

"Save Some Time To Dream" offers both the melancholy vocal ("Could it be that this is all that there is?") and hard, echoing guitar signature associated with the disaffected rock of the late 1960s -- as Vietnam and the often violent reactions to the Civil Rights movement bled out that decade's legendarily colorful expectations.

A similar steely realism, borne out of disappointment, seems to have welled up inside of Mellencamp. Even as he's locked in a desperate struggle to rebuke fame's dimming heat, Mellencamp can't get away from every adulthood's sharp-edged themes -- the empty aftermath of love's dissolution ("Thinking About You"), his own body's failings (on the staggering "Each Day of Sorrow") and -- I guess, most particularly -- with this world's larger untruths: "I'm sick of life, and it's lost its fun," he sings in "A Graceful Fall." "I'll see you in the next world, if there really is one."

Mellencamp has for some time been a voice for a rural world riven by change, but now he's more completely inhabiting a broader persona forever divorced from the times of youth, and -- like Johnson and his country counterpart Hank Williams Sr. -- finds himself alternately accepting of and then gripped by white-knuckled fear of the end: "Things sure have changed here since I was a kid," he sings on "The West End." "It's worse now; look what progress did."

He sees loss everywhere. There's a parent's nightmare in "No One Cares About Me" ("I lost one of my boys to the drug man; it was the only time I cried in my life"); a violent, Dylan-esque narrative in "Easter Eve"; and a soul singer's crying lament in "Don't Forget About Me." Even the seemingly lighthearted "Love at First Sight" has a darker, perhaps murderous portent.

Truth is, though, that "No Better Than This" is a blinding shard of sunlight compared with his most recent Burnett-produced release, the stark and weary"Life, Death, Love and Freedom." There, we heard a seemingly defeated Mellencamp confessing that "I feel like taking my life, but I won't."

On the other hand, here Mellencamp eventually finds his way to the precipice of real passion during "Clumsy Ol' World," even if he ultimately pulls back: "She don't eat meat, but she smokes cigarettes; she remembers things that I'm trying to forget."

A theme that perhaps runs throughout has Mellencamp exhorting us to "save some time for living." It may not be much, he's saying, but it's something. The years have weathered his optimism, but it still peeks out on occasion: "Save some time to dream," Mellencamp continues, "'cause your dream might save us all."

That starts, on this record, with Mellencamp himself.