On the liner notes for John Mellencamp’s 25th record No Better Than This it lists the musicians and something immediately stands out: there is only one man on the whole 13-song set credited with vocals. That man is the one who wrote all the songs and gave ’em life, John Mellencamp.
“This ain’t no picnic that I’m livin’. Just a resting place before it’s time to go.”
That line comes right in the heart of No Better during the song “Right Behind Me” and it was around that point I knew I was listening to a fine record. It’s a collection of songs that feels like the record the kid who used to be called Cougar always wanted to make.
Mellencamp comes across to me as a take-it-or-leave-it type of man. You know, the type of guy who’d tell you to kiss his ass if you didn’t like his face. This album sounds like that – no overt or purposeful social voice, just John’s – and it’s as successful as it is refreshing. The songs rely completely on his confidence and ability to write and sing, avoiding the temptation to add the unnecessary.
Mellencamp surrounded himself with not only the right players (like Marc Ribot on guitar) but the right places as well. He recorded No Better while on the road touring with another guy who has been recently making the albums he always wanted to, Bob Dylan. In a move that could have come across as heavy-handed, producer T Bone Burnett used traditional mono recording equipment to get a particular sound and set about laying down these tracks in mythologically significant music locales like Sun Studios in Memphis, The First African Baptist Church in Savannah, and room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio where Robert Johnson recorded “Terraplane Blues” and “Dust My Broom.”
The equipment, production, and locations are cool, but all that love is in vain (to steal a line from Johnson) if the songs, the voice and the man singing them don’t measure up to their surroundings. (In addition to some of the greatest music this planet has ever known, there were a lot of crappy records made at Sun Studios over the years, if you know what I mean.) Here is where the record gets good because an album that is all Mellencamp does just that. You don’t feel like you’ve been sold anything or handed some line. You don’t feel like you just got something pre-manufactured to sound classic, timeless and personal. You don’t taste any sh!t in your mouth or get mud in your ears. What you do get, as it says in the packaging, is thirteen new songs by John Mellencamp.
What does No Better teach? I mean, what can you get from the record? Well buddy, you learn that John Mellencamp can sing. He can get a song across because there’s something in his voice, the same something that sold about a billion records but also moves this latest effort (possibly his best) along. You learn that a man with his head on his shoulders after spending quite a bit of time with it up his ass (raise your hand if you’ve been there) can tell you a little bit about what’s out there.
“And I saw myself for a second as I really am… And I had to look away in disbelief I suppose”
Most of all you learn (if you’re like me) that you’re glad John Mellencamp is around making records, and that he lived through a heart attack and about 2 million smokes to be able to do this one, and that he did “Authority Song,” “Pink Houses,” and “Lonely Ol’ Night,” and that you too are still around to hear him discover that authentic voice that’s always been there.
If you’re interested in finding out more about what Mellencamp is up to, including tour dates to back No Better Than This, you can go to his official website here. If you want to order a copy of the new album head on over to amazon.
Here is a video from the Tavis Smiley show on PBS of John performing the opening track from No Better, “Some Time To Dream”
Top Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images