Terre Haute Tribune Star: Houses Haunted, Not Pink, on Mellencamp’s Latest Disc

By Mark Bennett - The Tribune Star - Read On Their Site

TERRE HAUTE — Before sliding “No Better Than This” into your CD player, decide what you need from John Mellencamp.

If you require at least a handful of danceable rockers with churning guitar lines and choruses that a packed arena can chant in unison, then find something else to do for 45 minutes. There is no “Authority Song” among the 13 tracks on Mellencamp’s latest album, due to be released Aug. 17 on Rounder Records.

But if you’re intrigued by dark, desperate, contemplative music, performed in iconic settings by a emotive singer and his crack band, then you’ve struck gold with this disc. Mellencamp and producer T Bone Burnett recorded this batch of new songs in an old way. They used a 55-year-old, monophonic tape recorder and a single, vintage RCA ribbon microphone to capture the songs, without overdubs or studio tricks. Just a vocalist backed by an Elvis-era assortment of instrumentalists. The starkness works because the bare-bones sound highlights the musicians’ skill.

They set up that microphone in some historic venues — Sun Studios in Memphis, where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins began their careers; First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., where the Underground Railroad gave safe haven to blacks escaping slavery; and Room 414 of Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, where blues pioneer Robert Johnson once recorded “Dust My Broom.”

As Burnett wrote in the liner notes for the album, “All those ghosts. All those spirits. This is a haunted record.”

It’s also somewhat depressing, which seems to be Mellencamp’s comfort zone in his recent work.

Now 58 years old, he’s survived an evolution of identities through his career, transitioning from Johnny Cougar to John Cougar, then John Cougar Mellencamp and finally John Mellencamp. Today, as a bona fide Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, it’s probably time to label him as, simply, Mellencamp — no Johnny, John or Cougar necessary. Like Dylan, Springsteen or Seger. In his Mellencamp era, he’s reflecting the bleakest elements of American life. Houses are haunted, not pink.

He’s at peace with that role. “I am done being a rock star,” he told Rolling Stone magazine recently. “I have no interest in that, in having the biggest concerts. I have only one interest — to have fun while we’re doing this and maybe have something somebody might discover.”

The latter goal could happen. Some listeners might hear “No Better Than This” and decide to add a classic Cash album or Robert Johnson anthology to their collections. Others might spend a few extra minutes, pondering Mellencamp’s deeply thoughtful lyrics, such as this passage from the title track:

“Give me back my youth, 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.”

The album also doesn’t get any more upbeat than that. Its undercurrent of hopelessness is summed up in “A Graceful Fall,” where Mellencamp declares, “I’m sick of life, and it’s lost its fun; I’ll see you in the next world, if there really is one.”

Ironically, the cover photograph on the advance CD jacket shows Mellencamp’s teenage son sitting between a couple of young girls — a fun shot that reminds you of a summer trip to the county fair or “Jack and Diane.” On “No Better Than This,” those days are long gone.