John Mellencamp hasn’t made his most approachable music over the last few albums, hasn’t made his happiest-go-lucky music. Instead, it’s been something else: Some of his best music.
“Troubled Man,” despite its roiling night of a title, connects more directly with the last great era of his music, the period from Scarecrow through Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy in the late 1980s. From the happily sawing fiddle to the snappy cadence to the sharp-edged introspection, this song — due as part of the forthcoming Plain Spoken on September 23, 2014 — sounds like the Mellencamp of old tackling the more serious subject matter favored by the Mellencamp of today.
No, he hasn’t returned to those lovebirds Jack and Diane. As Mellencamp intimates here, it’s both too early and too late for that. He’s grown enough to see through those dew-covered romantic conceits and, at the same time, is still making music too vital to relegate himself to the oldies circuit.
Instead, we hear something else: Someone still struggling to find himself in a song. What makes “Troubled Man” promising for those who’ve shied away from his critically well-received, but decidedly dark modern period, is that he sounds like himself again. If you listen hard enough, it’s easy to picture the same hard-bitten porchsitter from “Pink Houses” inhabiting this rough moral tale.
That opens the door for every moment of well-placed introspection that follows.