The Abolute Sound: No Better Than This Review

The backstory of John Mellencamp’s No Better Than This is compelling: 13 songs written in thirteen consecutive fevered days, T Bone Burnett enlisted as producer, and recording done at three legendary American shrines—the Sun Studio (including the rockabilly-influenced title song, all clicking-clacking acoustic bass and driving, echoey electric guitar behind Mellencamp’s spitfire vocal); America’s first black church, in Savannah, GA; and Room 414 of San Antone’s Gunter Hotel, home to Robert Johnson’s only recording sessions, with the music captured on a vintage ’55 Ampex 601 recorder and a vintage RCA ribbon mike. Tender moments, such as the gently swaying, John Prine-ish “Thinking About You,” are striking indeed, but the animating energy emanates from the singer’s triumph over forces that have waylaid less fortunate souls, as in the fiercely expressed growl of a son determined not to be broken as his father was in a thumping dirge, “The West End,” and in the spare but triumphant “Right Behind Me,” in which a fiddle and acoustic guitar frame the singer exulting in beating the Devil. T Bone’s sonics are typically uncluttered and atmospheric, but Mellencamp’s hoarse musings add the soulful grit that raises the whole enterprise to an inspired exercise in unvarnished Americana.