John Mellencamp: Strictly a One-Eyed Jack
Republic (16/44.1 stream, EMI/Qobuz). 2022. John Mellencamp, prod.; David Leonard, eng.
You might think an artist with 22 Top-40 hits would identify his winning formula and stick with it. Instead, John Mellencamp’s long career has been a tale of determined development and often improvement. On his latest album, the 70-year-old Indiana native has nestled deeper into his rural Midwestern roots, eschewing rock defiance for folk philosophy. The result is a powerful baring of the soul, which, to many Americans, will also be a glance in the mirror.
America has related to Mellencamp since he first came on the scene in the 1970s, when his management forced him to use the moniker John Cougar. But in 1982, with the album American Fool, he became specifically identified with small-town vignettes. He’d found a way to express the inner complexities of a simple life, and he was loved for it. He was rewarded, too, with big sales for singles like “Pink Houses,” “Crumblin’ Down,” and “Authority Song.”
All that success gave him the fortitude to reclaim his own name, first as John Cougar Mellencamp then removing “Cougar” altogether. In 1985, with Scarecrow, John Cougar Mellencamp augmented his approach to musical landscape-painting, introducing folk instruments into his sound. But rock stayed at the core, surrounded by a country mantle. The result was one of the first alternative country albums, effectively reviving the country-meets-rock sound, sometimes called No Depression, that the Flying Burrito Brothers had spearheaded at the end of the 1960s.
On his new album, Mellencamp wanders even farther into the forests of Americana, in metaphorical as well as ethnomusicological ways. Sure, the banjo, accordion, fiddles, acoustic guitars, and autoharpmany of them played by music director Andy Yorkconjure up the bygone years of the American nation. But then there is the extraordinary fact that nearly every song is in a minor key, and many of the melodies seem clearly crafted to sound modal and archaic. It feels like a declaration, maybe about the state of the Midwest Mellencamp loves so much. Or maybe old age has just made him dour. Either way, the past few years have generally worn everyone out, so it’s easy to connect with all that minor-key gloom.
Mellencamp, who produced Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, turned to veteran engineer David Leonard to help craft its rich and detailed sound. The two have worked on several albums together over the past two decades. Leonard has the right blend of alt-country (Dwight Yoakam, k.d. lang) and indie (Michelle Shocked, Juliana Hatfield) experience to know how to bring out Mellencamp’s current character. In the 1980s, we felt like we were in Mellencamp’s garage, the drums rattling our bones. Now we’re sitting next to him on the porch while he strums his acoustic guitar. The fact that the bass is less thunderous doesn’t diminish the thrill.
The vintage effect is intensified by Mellencamp’s always rough voice, which age has battered into a more melodic version of the Tom Waits growl. On the sardonic “I Am a Man That Worries,” Mellencamp’s singing has as much grit as the guitar fingerboard his slide presses into.
It’s not just the presence of acoustic instruments but how they’re used that define the album’s sound. On the opening track, “I Always Lie to Strangers,” Merritt Lear plays an unsteady fiddle obbligato that emphasizes the darkness of the melody. But on the wistful-yet-defiant “Simply a One-Eyed Jack,” the fiddle provides powerful drive. The old-school traveling song “Driving in the Rain” features a simple, constant tambourine swing, adding to the mournful innocence of a melody reminiscent of the 1930s. There’s another kind of retro on display in “Gone So Soon,” with keyboardist Troye Kinnett crafting a bluesy piano-bar flavor, and Joey Tartell blowing a mournful trumpet solo.
On three tracks, Bruce Springsteen takes a guest turn. “Wasted Days,” which has a weighty but laid-back rock feel, fits nicely with the album’s wistful mood. The instrumental arrangement is dense and delightful, with two fiddles, a guitar solo by Springsteen, and Kinnett’s accordion providing a Cajun tinge. Springsteen seems to tug Mellencamp back to his rock’n’roll past; “Did You Say Such a Thing” could be from one of the 1980s albums. Closing out the album is the third Springsteen guest spot, “Life Full of Rain.” The Boss only plays guitar on this one, but it’s an important contribution to a poignant arrangement. This is the saddest of the minor-key melodies; the accordion pulls long, desolate chords, conjuring empty, wet streets in the wee hours of a Paris morning.
Not all the songs work. “Chasing Rainbows” suffers from sophomoric sentimentality. Some poetic lines are uncomfortably out of sync with their natural stress. But there are so many solid, even glorious moments that the weak ones don’t matter much. The funky blues twang of “Sweet Honey Brown,” punctuated by crunching guitar chords, overcomes lyrics that could have been more focused. “The Streets of Galilee” flows with disillusionment even when the words are rhythmically awkward.
For nearly 50 years, John Mellencamp has been the voice of small-town and rural America. He has changed, but so has the land he writes about. This album takes on the inevitable passage of time, shaking a weathered fist.Anne E. Johnson
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