Trouble No More
If you didn’t think John Mellencamp had a record of great cover songs in him, you haven’t been paying attention. He’s always displayed a keen awareness of the historiography of rock and roll, the blues and country and Latin roots of American music — it’s just that he was trying too hard to express his own mind to ever try to interpret anyone else’s songs. But his voice and heart are perfect for the music he loves now in a way that his younger self never could have imagined. He’s been preparing for this record his whole life.
And it completely pays off. He nails track after track here, from a funky-ass version of Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway” and a gospelized take on the traditional blues “John the Revelator” to takes on more modern stuff like Lucinda Williams’ “Lafayette” and “Teardrops Will Fall” by Dickey Doo and the Dont’s.
But you won’t know about that — all you’ve probably heard about is how Mellencamp has changed some lyrics on one song to burn on George W. Bush. Well, yeah, he does that on “To Washington,” which didn’t really used to refer to “Baghdad” and a disputed presidential election and a war for oil. But it’s honest and it’s heartfelt and it’s wonderfully mean spirited because I agree with him — if I was a Bushie, I’d be pissed off. But then again, screw ’em. Good on yer, Johnny.
But let’s look at the rest of the record. It’s not exactly an exuberant romp of joy — these songs are largely downbeat, from the Woody Guthrie runaway-outlaw ballad “Johnny Hart” (isn’t that the ultraconservative guy who draws the comic strip “B.C.?”) to the perennial Son House downer “Death Letter,” where the narrator has to go identify his woman who’s laying in the morgue, to the oh-shit-I’m-screwed “Joliet Bound.”
But it doesn’t need to be “fun” to rock, which this does. Mellencamp was perhaps the missing link between Gram Parsons and modern alt.country, and he’s still got a hell of a band, anchored here by Andy York’s work on the National guitar and Miriam Sturm’s fiddling. These things bump along in a nice unpretentious way, and it’s hard not to appreciate how much better this is than it would be if anyone else had tried it. The Hoagie Carmichael/Paul Francis Webster chestnut “Baltimore Oriole” is transformed from jazz allegory into slinky Tex-Mex rock, and the accordion and the congas and Mellencamp’s weathered but lively voice all combine to make something that you’ve never really heard before. And Willie Dixon’s intense blues “Down in the Bottom” will haunt you from its whipcrack heartbeat drumming by Dane Clark to its premise: “Somebody told me/ Her old man don’t shoot no blanks/ Don’t want to be bleeding/ All over those old riverbanks”. Who needs fun when fear and depression sound so wonderful?
Overall, this sounds like a brand-new, re-energized John Mellencamp to me. He’s got his shit together, STILL, after all these years — and that means that he’s invested these 12 songs with something that means something.
I think that’s all John Mellencamp ever wanted, after all.
John Mellencamp: http://mellencamp.com/