John Mellencamp, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Taj Mahal – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County (2013)

John Mellencamp’s top billing owes more to his work with writer Stephen King on the narrative that would become a play called Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. He sings just once here, giving the album over to a host of guest stars — and the reliably atmospheric work of producer T Bone Burnett.

There’s a separate review to be written about the storyline that King and Mellencamp devised. I was more interested (as the June 4, 2013 release date for this Hear Music album loomed) not in the spoken-word interludes, but in how the songs stood up as separate entities. Turns out, Burnett’s rustic approach brings out new things in these name-brand stars, and their appearances in juxtaposition to one another only add to the growing intrigue around this mist-shrouded, Southern gothic soundtrack.

Elvis Costello’s develish “That’s Me,” for instance, shambles along with a town drunk’s sense of swaying cordiality, even as Costello ditches his punky whine for a confidential, hoodoo-spiked whisper. (Later, he returns for the clattering, and all-too-brief, “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong About Me,” sounding more like his skinny tie-era self.) If Neko Case’s “That’s Who I Am” recalls nothing so much as the familiar burnished country bonafides of Burnett’s recent work with Alison Krauss, Kris Kristofferson’s “How Many Days” possesses a moral authority that’s older, more lived in — and it resonates on a much deeper level. Rosanne Cash’s damaged tremolo on “You Don’t Know Me” could bring down even the biggest mountain of a man.

“So Goddam Smart” and then “So Goddam Good” find Sheryl Crow in a call-and-response with Phil and Dave Alvin, as they trade round-house barbs — like a girlfriend stepping into a white-knuckled sibling rivalry. Taj Mahal joins the same trio for the honeysuckled joys of “Home Again” and the Johnny Cash-inflected “What Kind Man Am I,” then barks and howls his way through the country-preacher blues of “Tear this Cabin Down.” Crow’s “Away from this World” offers an unfettered plea for salvation, while her thumping “Jukin’” recalls her earliest solo success: There’s sun leaking out of every seam.

Finally, with “Truth,” Mellencamp makes his belated entry — but at first only in support of the youthful Indianapolis folk-singing sisters Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz. Sounding a good bit worse for the wear, Mellencamp eventually rounds the track into an anthem of self-reliance that will be familiar to older fans. But only after allowing Ghost Brothers of Darkland Country — a darkly intriguing exploration, even apart from its spooky script, of the demons lurking inside of all of us — one final brilliantly executed head fake.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.