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.