Tuesday, August 24, 2010

John Mellencamp: No Better Than This

When I saw the latest John Mellencamp album, No Better Than This, reviewed by the Tribune’s rock critic, accompanied by 3 ½ out of 4 stars, I was intrigued. I was a John Mellencamp fan way back when he was…well, John Cougar. I’m from the Jack & Diane and Hurts So Good era and spent a lot of time with the Lonesome Jubilee tape in my Walkman during college (yes, kids, a Walkman!). I’ve kind of lost track of John, as I’ll call him, for the past 15 or 20 years, so I was curious to see what he is sounding like these days. I know that he has lived in Bloomington, Indiana with his adorable model wife and two sons for quite a long time now, and I know that at some point he had a heart attack, although I’m sorry to report that he still seems to be smoking. That’s about all I could tell you.

I’ll say this very objectively: this is a country album. Don’t let anyone, including iTunes, tell you the genre is rock because it’s not. John has always had a bit of a twang, but he is full-out countrified on this album. There are songs where I think he sounds like Johnny Cash and others where I think he sounds a little like Willie Nelson. Like many country songs, some are rather gloomy, and I tend to shy away from those, but some are very sweet. I get the feeling John is feeling rather philosophical these days and that is being manifested in his songs. I’m not even sure how much he really cares about commercial success anymore; I read a quote from him that essentially said he’s not doing anything he doesn’t want to do at this point. I also read that he recorded the songs on this album by putting a microphone in a room and having all the musicians sit around it, which gives it a pretty raw sound- it doesn’t sound like it was embellished much in the studio. You can just picture John sitting on a barstool with his guitar singing into a single microphone. Apparently he recorded 30 songs for the album and chose the 13 he liked best.

When I was in high school, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA was a massive hit and I was smitten, eventually acquiring all of his previous albums. When I got to Nebraska, I was horrified because it sounded nothing like the other albums I had come to love, both the glossy and the gritty. Nebraska just sounded rough. No Better Than This has somewhat of the same feel, and I had a similar though less dramatic reaction; I am much older and presumably more open-minded than I was in the 80’s. This is a good album, but you need to be prepared for what you’re getting, especially if you’re like me and have been on a John Cougar Mellencamp hiatus for a decade or two. I will not be playing this one in the kitchen while I work because I don’t feel like defending it to the household teens, but I think my husband will probably enjoy it.

The following were the songs I liked best from this album:

· Save Some Time to Dream – a rather hopeful song
· Love at First Sight – very cute love song
· Clumsy Ol’ World – retrospective on a long-term relationship

If you like a good twang, you’ll probably like No Better Than This. Enjoy!

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