Tuesday, August 17, 2010

John Mellencamp released No Better Than This

No Better Than This

John Mellencamp

Released: August 17, 2010

Peak: 10 US, 138 UK, -- CN, 83 AU

Sales (in millions): --

Genre: rock/Americana


Song Title (Writers) [time] (date of single release, chart peaks)

  1. Save Some Time to Dream [4:30]
  2. The West End [3:58]
  3. Right Behind Me [4:00]
  4. A Graceful Fall [3:20]
  5. No Better Than This [3:12] (6/28/10, --)
  6. Thinking About You [3:28]
  7. Coming Down the Road [4:45]
  8. No One Cares About Me [6:11]
  9. Love at First Sight [4:37]
  10. Don’t Forget About Me [3:14]
  11. Each Day of Sorrow [2:36]
  12. Easter Eve [6:30]
  13. Clumsy Ol’ World [3:29]

All songs written by John Mellencamp.

Total Running Time: 53:50

The Players:

  • John Mellencamp (vocals, guitar)
  • Andy York, T-Bone Burnett (guitars)
  • Marc Ribot (guitar, banjo)
  • David Roe (bass)
  • Jay Bellerose (drums, percussion)
  • Miriam Sturm (violin)


3.718 out of 5.00 (average of 25 ratings)

Quotable: “Arguably the singer-songwriter’s best LP since his Eighties heyday.” – Will Hermes, Rolling Stone

Awards: (Click on award to learn more).

About the Album:

“After struggling in recent years to match lyrical messages to complementary music and produce an engaging listening experience, John Mellencamp solves his puzzle on this 13-song collection of folk, blues and rockabilly sounds. While his 2008 album carried the title of Life, Death, Love and Freedom, death smothered all competing themes.” DL

Mellencamp calls his newest effort, No Better Than This, “his most rebellious record ever.” RL Of course, “it’s not like his long career has been filled with crazy detours into free form jazz and electronica…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.” RL

Still, this is “a defining album that resets his creative clock and reminds everyone how great a songwriter and musician that he really is. Because this…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…have all made albums that reinvigorated their relevancy and made us return to their newer work hungry for more.” RL This is “revelatory and free, the sound of a man who’s unshackled from commercial considerations or outside influences. And ironically, it’s a record that could’ve been made in 1954, which means it comes out of the speakers sounding remarkably fresh and new.” RL

This album “continues Stage 3 of a career in which Mr. Mellencamp has been a hit-making bad-boy rocker and then a concerned (and still hit-making) heartland Everyman. Since 2003, when he made Trouble No More, a collection of old blues and folk songs,” JP he “has moved steadily away from the studio-slick punch of his heyday in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and the rootsier approach he has taken of late has served him well” JK as he “continues his evolution into a modern-day folk hero.” JK He has become “a grizzled codger taking the long view, pondering mortality and the meaning of life.” JP While “his songs have always conveyed a rural-minded brand of populism,” JK now Mellencamp “relies on refrains rather than choruses and writes plenty of verses, more like traditional ballads (or Woody Guthrie songs) than pop hits.” JP He is effectively “channeling spirits and stepping into period styles. They fit him perfectly.” WH His “new release an old-school masterpiece” RL notable for “its consistency and artistic commitment.” RL

“Considering the title, Mellencamp has made a remarkably dark record,” WK in which he “deftly addresses good times, bad times and the intervening range of hope and despair” DL with “testimonials about being a man alone, abandoned by lovers and family and unsure of faith.” JP “What’s most striking about the writing on these tracks is their economy. Throughout his career, Mellencamp has shown a weakness for ambling digressions and overworked metaphors. Here, he doesn’t mince words.” JK

“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” WH by recording parts of the album “in hallowed rock and blues locations.” JP “The pilgrimages didn’t humble Mr. Mellencamp. They spurred him to compete with history.” JP

Producer T Bone Burnett, who also worked with Mellencamp on Life, Death, Love and Freedom, JP “has said that the album was ‘haunted’ by the spirits of these makeshift studios, and it's an apt description.” JK He told the Express-News, “The fact he chose these historic locations is a big plus. The stories that have come out of the sessions are extraordinary. The First African Baptist Church,” WK where three songs were recorded, JP “was started in 1775. It was an important stop on the Underground Railroad and central to the civil rights movement.” WK The Savanannah, Ga. Church “calls itself “the oldest black church in North America’.” JP

Another nine songs were recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee JP where Mellencamp “went for bass-slapping, reverb-guitar rockabilly.” JP Mellencamp said, “‘Everything was set up exactly as Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley recorded. They had ‘X’ marks made with electrical tape on the floor where Elvis and his musicians stood and where the instruments were placed, because Sam Philips walked around the room and decided where everything sounded best.’” WK

On “the bluesy cautionary” RL Right Behind Me, Mellencamp “cleverly punctuates its heady spiritual questions with a simple answer of ‘No,’” JK in room 414 of San Antonio’s Gunter Hotel, the exact room “where blues pioneer Robert Johnson recorded blues staples like ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and ‘Cross Road Blues’” WK in November 1936. Mellencamp “sang (as Johnson did) about being pursued by the Devil, with ragtimey guitar plunking and bluesy violin,” JP courtesy of “Miriam Sturm’s jazzy Hot Club fiddle.” WH As Mellencamp said, “I wrote it just for this room. I could have done this in my studio. But I want to do it this way.” WK He “wanted to record at the now-derelict Brunswick Records Building in Dallas, where Robert Johnson cut his final sessions in 1937, but the current owner of the building denied him permission to record there.” WK

The album was recorded “in mono, the same manner as the classic folk and blues recordings of the 1930s and ‘40s,” WK or “the sonic equivalent of making photos with a pinhole camera in a megapixel world.” DL This meant using “using a 1955 Ampex portable recording machine and only one microphone, requiring all the musicians to gather together around” WK “a single vintage ribbon mic.” WH Those players “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.” WH

As Mellencamp says, “Everything was cut live with no overdubs or studio nothing! These are real songs being performed by real musicians – an unheard-of process in today’s world.” WK “The fact that it’s in mono could come across as a silly reach for lo-fi cred,” RL but “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.” RL “The decision is logical for these songs and feels less like a statement and more like a commonsense artistic decision.” RL “These are songs that are meant to sound like they have some dust on them.” RL “You don’t want to hear something as dark and spooky as ‘The West End’ in pristine stereo, just as you can’t imagine the gentle Thinking About You spruced up and blasting out of the speakers.” RL

“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” WH “working in classic idioms – rockabilly on the title cut, Johnny Cash-like vintage rocking on Coming Down the Road, John Prine folk on the sly, funny ‘Love at First Sight’ and the closer Clumsy Ol’ World – that are familiar and comfortable.” RL “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.” WH “The record also happens to be one of the most focused, tightly written sets of Mellencamp’s career.” JK

Save Some Time to Dream is a gentle folk sermon with a dash of existential doubt.” WH Mellencamp debuted it “on May 17, 2009 at a political fundraiser for President Barack Obama at the Westin Hotel in downtown Indianapolis. ‘It’s about individual freedom and thought--and controlling our own lives,’ Mellencamp said.” WK He also performed the song “solo on acoustic guitar throughout much of his 2009 summer tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson” WK and “at several other concerts, including Farm Aid 2009 and a tribute to Myles Brand at Indiana University. He has also completed a painting entitled ‘Save Some Time to Dream.’” WK

Mellencamp’s characters weather “betrayal and solitude in No One Cares About Me and in” JP “the country-inflected Don’t Forget About Me,” JK “which promises undying love while hurling accusations.” JP The latter offers “one of the most effective vocal turns of his career” JK while the former is “a sturdy folkie” DL “over an old-timey hillbilly strut” < sup>WH in which Mellencamp sings “about a guy out of work, ditched by his wife, mourning a father, a son and his only friend.” WH

The characters contemplate “suicide, in A Graceful Fall and Each Day of SorrowJP, although Mellencamp is adept at “undercutting self-pity with springy Memphis backbeats.” JP The former is “a stumpy waltz” WH in which Mellencamp takes on the voice of “a relaxed balladeer.” DL It is sung from the perspective of someone who is “penniless, ‘sick of life’ and pondering the afterlife, ‘if there is really one.’ The dude in ‘Each Day of Sorrow’ insists he would kill himself ‘if I weren’t so afraid.’” WH

“But as usual, Mellencamp is at his best when he turns hardscrabble struggle into damn-the- torpedoes rock & roll. On the title track, a classic Sun Records ‘boom-chick-boom’ romp” WH in which Mellencamp takes on the voice of “a hiccupping hillbilly,” DL “is both wistful and self-deprecating.” JK He “runs through a list of fantasies, some quite reasonable, before concluding that ‘it won’t get no better than this’ however relatively fucked-up ‘this’ might be. Welcome to life in 21st-century America, ladies and gentlemen: Let’s party like it’s 1929.” WH

No Better Than This isn’t a perfectly honed set.” WH He can sound “earnest and overreaching, like the attempted workingman’s parable The West End,” JP “but Mellencamp has never sounded looser or easier on a record. The most indelible moments are straight-up funny.” WH

“He’s a coy Casanova” DL who “manages a crooked grin” JP on Love at First Sight, a song in which Mellencamp “imagines a relationship from back-seat grope through marriage, kids and subsequent disasters, before deciding it might be better to go home alone.” WH

Mellencamp narrates “the repercussions of a bar fight” JK on “The waltzing tall tale Easter Eve,” JP which sounds like “a strange, Dylan-like story song.” RL “A man and his 14-year-old son get hassled in a cafe, slash a motherfucker up, get thrown in jail, then walk off with the dude’s grateful wife. It’s musical storytelling for hard times: far-fetched, violent, sexy, played for laughs. It doesn’t get more timeless, or American, than that.” WH

“Mellencamp says the album is ‘as American folk as I’ve ever been.’” “He told Rolling Stone in July 2009 that he’s not concerned whether or not there’s a large audience for such a raw, simple record. ‘I am done being a rock star,’ Mellencamp said. ‘I have no interest in that, in having the biggest concerts. I have only one interest: to have fun while we’re doing this and maybe have something that somebody might discover.’” WK

In the end, “as much as any programmed, multitracked pop extravaganza, No Better Than This is inseparable from its technology. But the songs aren’t revivalist imitations;” JP “behind the period arrangements and the antique haze of the production, they’re still Mellencamp songs.” JPNo Better Than This works as well as it does because it plays to Mellencamp’s strengths. His genuine empathy for rural living and his occasional hell-raising both come through in equal measure. And despite the heavy blues influence that Burnett brings to the project, it’s still obvious that Mellencamp has the heart of a folk singer.” JK Besides, “the minimalism of these songs fits perfectly with this acoustic blues style that Mellencamp began to explore on Life, Death, Love and Freedom.” JK “Mr. Mellencamp is a disillusioned grown-up echoing the sounds of brash young men. He can’t undo the ravages and lessons of time, any more than rock is going back to mono.” JP “It’s the tension and the cooperation among those competing forces that makes…[this] one of his finest.” JK

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First posted 1/26/2011; last updated 2/5/2022.

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