Worcester Telegram & Gazette: 3.5 out of 4 Stars No Better Than This Review

Worcester Telegram & Gazette By Craig S. Semon Tracks

“No Better Than This” John Mellencamp (Rounder Records)
On “No Better Than This,” John Mellencamp has gone light-years from his 1982 breakthrough hit, “Hurt So Good” and subsequent smash, “Jack and Diane.” Today, Diane has left him for another man and times are so bad that the 58-year-old Hoosier ponders suicide, not once but twice. And those are the upbeat songs.

But don’t let the bleak subject-matter (American) fool you, because “No Better Than This” is an instant classic. While Mellencamp’s world-weary words and trial-by-error wisdom permeate throughout the record, it’s the matter-of-fact delivery and the natural, no-fuss, no-muss attitude that will grab hold of the listener. Delving deep into the rich traditions of blues, folk, rockabilly and country, the album is uncluttered as it hearkens back to a simpler and more honest time.

With celebrated roots producer T Bone Burnett at the helm, the no-frills “No Better Than This” was made as simply as possible, using an archaic Ampex 601 reel-to-reel tape recorder, a single vintage ribbon microphone and all the musicians huddled in cramped sacred places, including Memphis’ Sun Studio and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where Delta blues legend Robert Johnson recorded in 1936. The tunes were recorded live and in mono, often in one take and without any mixing or overdubs.

On the acoustic-tinged soul-searcher “Save Some Time to Dream,” Mellencamp concludes we have very little time for life’s important things. His friendly, familiar rasp tenderly caresses the intimate and introspective lyrics while an earthy mix of acoustic guitar strums and muffled percussion follow suit. “Could it be that this is all there is/Could it be there’s nothing more at all,” Mellencamp ponders. “Save some time to dream/’Cause your dream could save us all.” In the end, Mellencamp concludes life is a death sentence, but what a ball it was to that point.

On “The West End,” Mellencamp returns to the working-class neighborhood of his youth only to find out it has gotten even worse than he remembered it. Singing for the restless souls, including his beaten and crushed old man, Mellencamp’s disembodied voice, combined with a claustrophobic mix of gurgling guitars and ghostly banjo, makes the number sound like it is unfolding deep in your restless self-consciousness.

Mellencamp wrestles with his saintly and sinner impulses and the woes of his two-timing lover wrapped in the arms of some stranger on the modern-day morality play “Right Behind Me.” Spitting his bile in the face of Beelzebub, Mellencamp snaps, “This ain’t no picnic/That I’m living/Just a resting place/Before it’s time to go/You see the devil/He thinks he got me/But he ain’t got me/No.”

The underlining message on the bouncy damnation ditty “A Graceful Fall” is that it’s better to slip off this mortal coil than live another day full of hardships and disappointments. Suffering from an incurable case of the blahs, Mellencamp passionately croons, “Yeah, I’m sick of life/’Cause it lost its fun/I’ll see you in the next world/If there is really one.” Mellencamp warmly sings his downtrodden lyrics, which have plenty of fodder to sing around the hellfire.

On the title track, “No Better Than This,” Mellencamp shares his ideas of what constitute a perfect evening, which includes some money in his pocket, some smooching and hitting a place “where the music is loud.” No argument here. Accompanied with a Johnny Cash-inspired boom-chicka-boom rhythm, Mellencamp is irresistible and rough around the edges as the aging ruffian who wants to be the only man at an all-girl sorority party, but will settle with keeping his head above water.

“It’s not my nature to be nostalgic at all,” Mellencamp confesses in the opening verse of “Thinking About You.” Yeah, right. Despite it being decades since he has spoken to a former flame, Mellencamp waits around the phone hoping for a call that will never come. With tender, tongue-in-cheek words that tread the thin line that separates sentimental goo and being slapped with a restraining order, Mellencamp drops the bad-boy persona and effectively shows his scruffy romantic side.

To say nothing is going Mellencamp’s way on “No One Cares About Me” is a gross understatement. His wife has left him. His father has died. He has no family or friends living close by. On top of that, he’s out of work. Somehow, he turns this hapless tale into an irresistible vagabond sing-along.

Incorporating the flash-forwards and flash-sideways formula of “Lost,” Mellencamp envisions a lifetime of happiness (and, on the flip side, a lifetime of heartache and disappointment) sparked off from the potential, impulsive next step in a chance encounter on the passionate, poetic, pessimistic and triumphant “Love at First Sight.” While the notion of falling in love like two turtle-doves and getting engaged underneath the Milky Way is more Karen Carpenter than Johnny Cash, the ugly head of uncertainty eventually creeps in where the couple are constantly butting heads and increasingly growing tired of each other. “And let’s suppose you left in a huff/Because you didn’t love me enough/And let’s suppose you found another man/And hit me in the head with a frying pan,” Mellencamp whimsically but wearily muses, “Let’s suppose we both better just think it over.” Mellencamp does a lot of supposing but ends with a solid song nonetheless.

Father-and-son bonding and the rite of passage of bare-knuckle brawling are explored on the unorthodox “Easter Eve.”

Mellencamp’s rich storytelling lyric and fleshed-out characters draw us into this Dylanesque tale of duking it out and being a man. In the end, father is proud because his son is a chip off the old block and Mellencamp has another humdinger of an album on his hands.