By Simon Ramsay - Stereoboard
For obvious reasons, the US is currently enduring one of the most turbulent periods in its history. So the prospect of plainspoken singer-songwriter John Mellencamp returning with a passionate, scathing diatribe about the current state of his nation was an exciting one. Ever the contrarian, though, ‘Sad Clowns & Hillbillies’ is instead a surprisingly uplifting comeback that’s less protest piece and more existential comfort blanket.
You wouldn’t necessarily expect an album with this title to perk you up, but the record, the 23rd in a career that has seen the everyman from Indiana become one of America’s greatest songwriters, does just that thanks to its origins and the contributions of country songwriter and vocalist Carlene Carter.
Daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter to Johnny Cash, Carlene worked with Mellencamp on both Stephen King’s ‘Ghost Brothers of Darkland County’, and the movie score of Ithaca before supporting him during a recent tour.
During that time the pair decided to write brand new songs in the style of an old religious country album, but once they began crafting material the record evolved into a panoramic take on American roots music coloured by a stirring undercurrent of humanity and spirituality.
The gospel joy of My Soul’s Got Wings – which Mellencamp crafted from unused Woody Guthrie lyrics – and brooding revelation of Carter’s Damascus Road may be the only two overtly religious songs, but that sense of faith, hope and a higher purpose still courses through this record’s veins. The visceral What Kind Of Man Am I, for example, is reminiscent of Cash’s take on Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt. It begins as an old man’s tortured confession but halfway through the band kicks in and Carter arrives to offer salvation, taking an incredibly dark piece and flooding it with redemption.
Throughout, her mellifluous vocals bring light to Mellencamp’s shade. On Dixieland stomper Sugar Hill Mountain, a gloriously anachronistic piece that sounds like it should be blaring out of a gramophone, Carter oozes feelgood escapism, while helping to transform the potentially mournful nostalgia of Indigo Sunset into a beautiful, treasured memory. She also brings out a sprightlier side of her musical partner, with Sad Clowns a jazz-inflected, tongue-in-cheek number that’s vintage Ray Davies.
What’s more, the self-professed curmudgeon even gifts fans a cracking
throwback moment in Grandview. Written with his cousin Bobby Clark in the early
‘90s, its smouldering rock ‘n’ roll groove is driven by Izzy Stradlin’s gritty
guitar, former Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch’s swinging beats and a sassy
vocal contribution from Martina McBride. If hearing this doesn’t make you feel
alive, you’re probably not.
Where Mellencamp’s last two records were musically sparse affairs, ‘Sad Clowns…’ is a bountiful production featuring sublime instrumentation and orchestration. Gospel backing singers, pianos, organs and dobros all interweave with acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars to create a fittingly upbeat canvas that helps conveys the record’s thematic focus. The results make for somewhat philosophical, didactic and cathartic vignettes about reconciling our perfectly imperfect character traits, finding purpose in this world and walking a meaningful path.
Although a departure from what’s preceded it, the album climaxes with a potent sting in its tail. Easy Target is a bitingly raw protest number about racial discrimination and poverty where Mellencamp’s smoke-stained vocals resemble Tom Waits and pack a sage punch. Signing off with the line “Easy targets, a country’s broken heart”, its weighty sentiments remind us of ongoing injustices that should never be ignored.
We’d have loved a full record in that style, but what the world needs right now is optimism and something to fortify the human spirit in the face of enveloping adversity. ‘Sad Clowns & Hillbillies’ isn’t necessarily the Mellencamp record we wanted, but it may just be the one we need.