Tuesday, September 7, 2010

John Mellencamp

No Better Than This

Rounder Records

Since 1989 or so John Mellencamp has been shedding the label-induced "Cougar" moniker and all the crap that came with it. At the same time he's been making indelible, serious and fun music ever since. People were confused or turned off by Mellencamp's "Pop Singer" (from 1989's Big Daddy), a thrown gauntlet to cats off his manufactured namesake. Perhaps fans felt he turned his back on their good times, their lives. They should have seen it coming with 1987's Scarecrow.

It was easy to misinterpret. Mellencamp was asserting his power as a songwriter, not wanting to be part of the pop music assembly line, one far worse now in 2010. He continued to craft earnest songs ("Martha Say, "Jackie Brown") while delivering catchy ones ("Key West Intermezzo", "Get a Leg Up", "Your Life is Now"). In truth, Mellencamp has never really made a bad record since hitting big in 1982. He's been talked about with Guthrie and Dylan but derided for writing hit songs. He's had albums that wandered, Freedom Road, Trouble No More, and struggled the last decade with record labels, jumping from Mercury to Sony to smaller labels (Hear Music, Universal Republic).

The singer once said that men weren't worth a damn till they're forty. Maybe Mellencamp was talking about richness with age, attaining wisdom. His last album, 2008's Life Death Love and Freedom, produced by T. Bone Burnett, seemed to be the distillation of age, wisdom and creative countenance. It was, perhaps, an album he's been working towards since the mid-nineties, if not earlier. It's spare and raw nature was perfect for the album's subject matter and Mellencamp's coarse, much older voice. No Better Than This, also produced by Burnett, follows up on it, the singer still sounding like a young man adverse with the world around him.

No Better Than This was recorded at historic locations - the hotel room where Robert Johnson recorded, Sun Studios, the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga. Those locations are interesting, poignant, but what's relevant are the songs and how they were recorded - a single microphone and a 55-year old Ampex tape recorder. Mellencamp once thanked The Rolling Stones for keeping the "living room on the record." He was recalling the feeling of wonderment of sitting in a room and hearing a record - before an overabundance of TV and the Internet. With No Better Than This, we're alone in those rooms with him.

The sound of the record is important. It's thick and unpolished. It feels real, it feels dirty and tainted. For all the grittiness and sparseness the songs are inviting and at times as catchy as anything else the man has ever written. Each is an individual story, all worth taking in. I'm as much of a fan of Mellencamp's early work as his most recent. we've probably only begun to see the watershed of work by a man in his later-years prime. Years from people and critics alike will probably look back at these years and albums as the beginning of something far more prolific in Mellencamp's catalog.

-Brian Tucker

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