John Mellencamp: “No Better Than This”
I almost hesitate to go into the specifics of the recording sessions that yielded No Better Than This. It’s not that it isn’t an interesting backstory; I’m just afraid it might give the wrong impression. John Mellencamp wrote these thirteen songs in a burst of inspired creativity while on tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson in the summer of 2009. He hooked up with producer T-Bone Burnett to put them to tape, and ended up getting the Americana tour of a lifetime from the genre’s formative tour guide; just as he led listeners down the road of American country and folk music on the bestselling O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Burnett took Mellencamp on a hands-on journey through some of the seminal locales of American roots music. Parts of the album were recorded at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah; parts, at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis; and parts, in the same hotel room where Robert Johnson recorded so many of his Delta blues staples. Nothing about the sessions was elaborate: The songs were cut live, in a single room, into a single microphone.
If you think that sounds like a series of gimmicks, you obviously haven’t heard the record. Burnett writes in his liner notes that this is a haunted record, and he’s dead on. You can hear the ghosts– some of them holy, some of them impure– that rattle through these songs, just as surely as they’ve always loomed around the edges of American folk music, just as surely as you can hear the inspiration they’ve brought to Mellencamp. Forget the heartland rock and poor man’s Sprinsgsteen-isms you associate with the guy; this recording is primitive and raw and real, easily his finest. Rather than ending up as gimmicks, the unusual production methods have instead yielded an album that doesn’t settle for imitation, but literally goes to the source of American roots music. This isn’t an approximation of vintage Americana; it’s actually caked in the very same red dirt and clay.
In terms of sound alone, there’s nothing like this being made in 2010. It’s not often that you hear a recording where all the musicians are playing into one, shared mic, and it yields a sound that’s warm, immediate, lived-in. Burnett’s hand on the controls is completely unobtrusive, save for the reverberation he allows into some of the more rockabily-flavored recordings– which is, of course, an authentic touch. Mellencamp’s voice is unadorned, preserved in all its ragged glory; he’s as raspy as Tom Waits on some of these songs.
The songs are, for the most part, stark, naked poetry in the cowboy vein– folk songs covered in country dust and more than a slight tint of the blues. There is one notable exception to this, and it comes late on the album. “Easter Eve,” at six-and-a-half minutes in length, is a genially rambling narrative in the tradition of Dylan’s talking blues, of Jack Elliot, of Woody Guthrie– it’s an idiom so timeless it’s essentially stitched into the fabric of American song. Mellencamp isn’t known for his lyric writing, but this story-song is wryly funny, tender, outrageous, redemptive, and totally wonderful.
Album opener “Save Some Time to Dream” is almost its total opposite: Rather than relish the particulars, this song embraces the universal in a way that makes it powerfully evocative and transcendent. Broadly, it’s a song about hope and faith, about endurance through tribulation; Mellencamp played it at some Obama rallies, but more than just political, the song is personal first, almost devotional in its introspection and its spiritual candor. The guitar and Jay Bellerose’s gently thumping percussion share the space with Mellencamp’s voice, and the whole thing does indeed sound like a warm, hazy dream. There’s a similar effect on “Coming Down the Road,” where Marc Ribot’s bluesy electric guitar licks are put on equal footing with a slapped, rockabilly bass.
Sin and redemption stalk this record, almost literally so on “Right Behind Me,” where an almost ragtime beat is slowed down into an ominous pulse, a ragged fiddle sawing away as Mellencamp sings– with increasing resolve– about being at the crossroads of God and the Devil. The song touches on death, too, as does the terrifically bluesy rockabilly number “Each Day of Sorrow.” There are some beautiful love songs– including the lovelorn “Don’t Forget About Me,” where a tough-talker lets down his guard for what must be the simplest and among the most affecting country-blues shuffles on record. And there’s something very different on “The West End,” a song that continues Mellencamp’s fascination with the decline of the American city. But rather than writing a topical song, he’s written one so lean and precise that it could’ve been a blues standard; the way his compassion turns so sharply toward apathy is one of his neatest writing tricks ever, and makes the song that much more affecting and complex.
But “complex” isn’t the first word that comes to mind with this album: Indeed, it is disarming in its simplicity, and authentic in a way that no recent approximations of old American folk and blues have been. And yet, by its very virtue of being American music, it is broad, deep, and at times contradictory; it’s tough yet sensitive, rooted in the past yet shunning nostalgia, caked in dirt and mire yet transcendentally beautiful at the same time. Mellencamp and Burnett do not use those American landmarks as mere gimmicks; they earn their own place in those American legends.