Review : John Mellencamp - No Better Than This
PopmattersJohn Mellencamp calls No Better Than This his “most rebellious record ever” and who are we to argue? No disrespect to Mellencamp, but it’s not like his long career has been filled with crazy detours into free form jazz and electronica. He’s never gone Christian, never done anything like his pal Lou Reed and set an entire album to Edgar Allen Poe’s writing, never fully challenged his audience. About the most risky thing he’s done is offer up one of his better late career songs, “Our Country”, to a truck commercial, which probably paid off handsomely in his bank account, but soured a lot of people on his music because of the tune’s ubiquity and jingoistic vibe.
All that said, No Better Than This is something for which Mellencamp was long overdue: a defining album that resets his creative clock and reminds everyone how great a songwriter and musician that he really is. Because this, his 19th studio album, is truly brilliant and it’s as good as anything he’s ever released, which is saying a lot. Dylan had Time Out of Mind, Springsteen had The Rising, and any number of Mellencamp’s less popular peers—John Hiatt, Graham Parker, Greg Brown—have all made albums that reinvigorated their relevancy and made us return to their newer work hungry for more.
What makes No Better Than This so great is its consistency and artistic commitment. Mellencamp recorded it in a creative burst while on tour with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. With T-Bone Burnett as his producer, he’d take quick breaks from the road and visit iconic studios across the country, recording where blues legend Robert Johnson did in San Antonio or in the historic Sun Studios. U2 tried something like this with Rattle and Hum in the late ‘80s and it came across pretentious and gimmicky. In Mellencamp’s hands the recording process is not only a tribute to the masters, but also the ideal way to bring these 13 songs to life. It makes sense that music this personal and intimate be recorded this way, with a group of musicians standing together in a room, playing at the same time without the benefit of overdubs and studio trickery....full text
RollingstoneThis, continues the thread of American archaeology that he began on Trouble No More, a self-produced 2003 set of traditional songs and covers. But where Trouble was a first brush with history – Mellencamp trying to make it come to him – here he meets that history on its home ground. A set of old-school originals recorded in resonant settings (Sun Studio in Memphis; the First African Baptist Church in Savannah; a hotel room in San Antonio where Robert Johnson cut some classic sides), No Better shows Mellencamp channeling spirits and stepping into period styles. They fit him perfectly.
Producer T Bone Burnett rides shotgun, and the duo keep it simple: an old Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder, a single vintage ribbon mic, a small group of empathetic players. They include ex-Tom Waits guitarist Mark Ribot; Jay Bellerose, whose rhythms shaped Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand; and stand-up bassist David Roe, who played with Johnny Cash at the end of his life.
Mellencamp's songs show a writer still on a hot streak after 2008's Burnett-produced Life, Death, Love and Freedom, arguably the singer-songwriter's best LP since his Eighties heyday. He shoots for timeless here: Aside from an allusion to an answering machine on the Woody Guthrie-style "Thinking About You," these songs could have all been written 50 years ago or more. "Save Some Time to Dream" is a gentle folk sermon with a dash of existential doubt. The swinging "Right Behind Me" considers Jesus and the devil – "both inside of me/All the time" – with Miriam Sturm's jazzy Hot Club fiddle....full text
Newyorker.John Mellencamp’s new album, “No Better Than This,” is his twenty-first studio record, but it’s also a début of sorts. It’s his first album for Rounder Records, the independent roots label, and it is, on the surface, a marked departure from his other recordings, a spare folk-blues record that bears little resemblance to the arena-friendly rock that carried him to stardom.
The album is drenched in historical significance. The songs, performed by Mellencamp and a small band, were recorded in mono, on a nineteen-fifties Ampex 601 portable machine. Even more notable is where they were recorded: Mellencamp committed his new compositions to tape at three landmark locations—Sun Studios, in Memphis, where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others helped invent rock and roll in the mid-fifties; the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, one of the oldest African-American congregations in the United States; and the Gunter Hotel, in San Antonio, where Don Law recorded the Delta blues legend Robert Johnson in 1936.
Mellencamp’s approach raises all kinds of red flags about self-consciousness and self-importance. But from the first verse of the album’s opener, the gently defiant “Save Some Time to Dream,” it’s evident that this wise, charming album is less a stiff historical re-creation than a highly personal testimonial on the order of Bob Dylan’s “Good as I Been to You” or Loudon Wainwright III’s “High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project.” In fact, the traditional forms seem to free up Mellencamp’s songwriting; he can be a strident lyricist, but here his anger subsides and his generous storytelling gift comes to the fore. The title track and “Each Day of Sorrow” are intense, limber rockabilly numbers. “Thinking About You” is a plainspoken love story that recalls Mellencamp’s sometime collaborator John Prine. “Easter Eve,” a tale of manhood and violence with plenty of left turns, plays like a younger cousin to Dylan’s “Highlands.” And “No One Cares About Me,” lyrically bleak, is set to music that is fleet and engaging. Mellencamp has been heading in this direction for a while. After “Cuttin’ Heads,” in 2001, a strong album loaded up with guest stars like Chuck D and Trisha Yearwood, his work became progressively darker. On “Trouble No More,” in 2003, he covered blues and folk standards; “Freedom’s Road” and “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” offered pessimistic appraisals of the state of the nation. An explicit return to folk, blues, and early rock could have been a kind of memorial service; instead, it’s a loose, lovely celebration....full text
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