The Epoch Times: No Better Than This Review

The Epoch Times By David Gonzales

Maybe the recession has something to do with the sparse, hauntingly beautiful sound of John Mellencamp’s latest album, No Better Than This (Rounder Records). Talk about cutting back to bare essentials—the album’s 13 songs were recorded live in mono by Mellencamp and his fellow musicians using only one microphone and a 55-year-old Ampex tape recorder.

No lavish state-of-the-art technology here. It's just a simple, unpretentious sound dominated by acoustic guitar and the judicious use of violin, bass, drums, and electric guitar. While none of the songs directly confront the current economic downturn, the songs’ austere ambience seems to fit the mood of the nation.

The album also shoulders the weight of history, as the songs were recorded in three significant locations: the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, the first Black church in America dating to pre-Revolutionary times; Sun Studios in Memphis, where in the mid-1950s Elvis Presley drew a breath and gave birth to rock n’ roll; and room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where in 1936 Robert Johnson recorded some of the greatest blues in history.

Instead of a cross to bear, the historic locales seem to have had a liberating effect on Mellencamp, and he sounds thoroughly relaxed and confident—his voice suitably gruff and drenched with life’s experience. He traverses an assortment of traditional musical forms here including folk, rockabilly, country, blues, gospel, and dashes of rock n’ roll.
Singer/songwriter John Mellencamp. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Though rooted in tradition, the songs certainly don’t sound like relics. One of the many delights is the rockabilly-hued No One Cares About Me. It sports a spunky melody and lyrics that capture the ache of loneliness: “And I knew an old guy once/He was kind of my friend/But he smoked himself to death/And they buried him out at Riverview/Now I’m all that I’ve got left.”

Mellencamp, who wrote all 13 songs on the album, writes insightful, perceptive lyrics exhibiting a sharp eye for the heroism and foibles of the human condition. On Coming Down the Road, for instance, the protagonist gains insight into why his life isn’t much fulfilling: “And I saw myself for a second as I really am/As I was coming down the road/And I had to look away in disbelief I suppose …/I caught a glimpse of myself as others see me/And I wasn’t the fella that I thought I’d be.”

Mellencamp also composes strong, sturdy melodies on which to hinge the power of the lyrics. Significantly, No Better Than This was produced by T Bone Burnett, who seemingly has a Midas touch as a producer of music for albums and film. Notable examples include the massive-selling soundtrack to the 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou, which put bluegrass, folk, and other traditional styles of Americana back into the public eye; Grammy winning odd couples in the pairings of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on Raising Sand, and Tony Bennett and k.d. Lang on A Wonderful World; and most recently an Oscar win for Best Original Song from the film Crazy Heart.

No Better Than This is basically a folk album, benefitting from Burnett’s keen production ear. The pleasant vibe makes me imagine that the late folk immortal Woody Guthrie may just like to join Mellencamp on stage to play on many of the songs on this offering.