The Mellencamp formula hasn't changed much since our favorite Indianan released his first album back in 1976: he's still piecing together populist anthems, three-chord ballads, and feisty rock numbers with a cigarette dangling from his lips. What's different about his latest record, No Better Than This, though, is that the mosaic is starting to take the shape of a musical self-portrait.
If this 25th album (in a career that includes a forgotten Cougar, membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, nearly a dozen Grammy noms, "Pink Houses," Farm Aid, and a special part in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaigns) reveals anything about Mellencamp, it's that all these years after "Hurts So Good," "Rain On The Scarecrow," and "R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.," we haven't been listening as closely as we should. John Mellencamp is never less than the sum of his "Small Town" hits, but down in the nooks and crannies, he's also much more.
If your only exposure to John Mellencamp in the 2000s has been Chevy truck commercials (remember 2005's "Our Country"?), then you might want to check out 2008's Life, Death, Love, and Freedom before you proceed; that's where T-Bone Burnett, king of spooky-cool Americana and award-winning producer of the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss Raising Sand collab and the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou , joined Mellencamp in his Indiana studio to help strip his sound bare.
Their pairing resulted in some of Mellencamp's least commercial and most memorable material to date ("Jena" declared "Take your nooses down;" "Longest Days" lamented, "Sometimes you get sick and you don't get better/life is short, even in its longest days").
Burnett is back for No Better Than This, which was written in less than two weeks and recorded over 5 days during the summer of 2009 at Sun Studios in Memphis, San Antonio's Gunter Hotel, and the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia. And get this: the whole thing was captured on this mono AMPEX 601 tape recorder Mellencamp bought off eBay:
(Above: Mellencamp's recording set-up in the First African Baptist Church of Savannah. Photo courtesy of Bob Merlis. )
We're all aware Sun Studios birthed Elvis's career, but did you know that bluesman Robert Johnson recorded "Stones in My Passway" in Room 414 at the Gunter Hotel or that the First African Baptist Church played a major role in the Underground Railroad? Auspicious locales and retro equipment might have added up to gimmickry if No Better Than This was the brainchild of anybody other than John Mellencamp. Heck, he and his wife Elaine even got baptized in FABC in Savannah, right in front of the altar where the recording gear was set up. But when Mellencamp set out to realize the musical vision behind this project, you know it had to be because he wanted to, not because he thought some stodgy music critic would froth over it.
Not surprisingly the frothing about the August 17-released No Better Than This has begun, and I have to say it's well-deserved.
This collection of songs isn't epic; not every tune feels urgent or relevant, nor should it. The timeless simplicity of "Thinking About You" outweighs the need for grandstanding or radio-ready choruses. "A Graceful Fall " and "Coming Down the Road" bring in fun rockabilly and country influences. And "Save Some Time to Dream" finds Mellencamp at a new level of lyrical poignancy; none other than the Dalai Lama has touted the song's mantra about accepting your mistakes and learning from sorrow:
"This reminds me of a Tibetan expression that says one should be able to turn adversity or tragedy into an opportunity," His Holiness told Mellencamp after watching him perform the song at an event at the Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington, Indiana in May.
Stripped of the trappings of his 1980s/MTV heyday and sequestered in the most uncluttered of musical settings on No Better Than This, we can once again see and hear Mellencamp for what he is: a classic American songwriter. Maybe it's a similar worldview, songwriting skills honed by age and experience, or perhaps they're just kindred spirits, but there's a reason why Mellencamp keeps company with Bob Dylan.
As for the autobiographical elements on his latest album? With Mellencamp, it will never be about who's in his entourage or his bed, but rather what's on his mind and in his heart. He's always going on about something. As you listen to No Better Than This, you know the concepts he spends the most time pondering these days: life, death, love, and freedom, of course -- but he's now added grace, sorrow, memories and dreams, too.
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