John Mellencamp’s No Better Than This was a darkly inspiring triumph

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It’s not just that John Mellencamp’s No Better Than This, released on Aug. 17, 2010, was an old-fashioned project done in an old-fashioned way. It’s that the album created an eerie, resilient world unto itself, one of half-seen haints, very old secrets and dusty hopes held close.

Everything on this, another in an ongoing run of career-redefining albums for John Mellencamp that started with 2007’s Freedom’s Road, was rooted with an ageless sense of place. It was older than old, and stronger for that. Producer T Bone Burnett copped to it, in the liner notes to No Better Than This: “All those ghosts. All those spirits. This is a haunted record.”

These 13 songs were also written in a mirrored 13 days, during time off all across the Deep South during a 2009 summer tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Burnett and John Mellencamp carried around a half-century old monophonic tape recorder and a single, vintage microphone – recording without overdubs or other studio add-ons at places like Memphis’ Sun Studios, where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins launched their legends; at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., where the Underground Railroad once sparked a dream of escape for enslaved African-Americans; and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, where doomed blues legend Robert Johnson made world-changing recordings of “Dust My Broom” and “Terraplane Blues” for Brunswick Records. Each spot provided, perhaps to no one’s surprise, some powerful mojo.

Poet Richard Hugo, in The Triggering Town, talked about how these kind of environments, even glimpsed from a passing car or across the street from a local bar, can spark creativity — becoming a jumping-off point to some deeper thought. He says something else in that book that resonates here: “All truth must conform to music.” What makes No Better Than This so remarkable is how John Mellencamp internalized both sentiments, embracing places and a sound that gets older and older with every new song — but also boldly rebuking the earliest hopes of his own pop-star prepackaging as Johnny Cougar. “It’s not a graceful fall,” he wrote, “from dreams to the truth.”

Shadows gathered all around No Better Than This: “Give me back my youth,” Mellencamp sang on the rollicking title track, “and don’t let me waste it this time; stand me up at the golden gates at the front of the line; let me lie in the sunshine, covered in the morning mist; then show me something I ain’t never seen — but it won’t get no better than this.” “Save Some Time To Dream” offered both the melancholy vocal (“Could it be that this is all that there is?”) and hard, echoing guitar signature associated with the disaffected rock of the late 1960s — as Vietnam and the often violent reactions to the Civil Rights movement bled out that decade’s legendarily colorful expectations.

A similar steely realism, borne out of disappointment, seemed to have welled up inside of John Mellencamp. Even as he became locked in a desperate struggle to rebuke fame’s dimming heat, Mellencamp couldn’t get away from every adulthood’s sharp-edged themes — the empty aftermath of love’s dissolution (“Thinking About You”), his own body’s failings (on the staggering “Each Day of Sorrow”) and — I guess, most particularly — with this world’s larger untruths: “I’m sick of life, and it’s lost its fun,” he sings in “A Graceful Fall.” “I’ll see you in the next world, if there really is one.”

Mellencamp had for some time been a voice for a rural world riven by change, but into the 2010s he began more completely inhabiting a broader persona forever divorced from the times of youth, and — like Robert Johnson and his country counterpart Hank Williams Sr. — found himself alternately accepting of and then gripped by white-knuckled fear of the end: “Things sure have changed here since I was a kid,” he sang at one point. “It’s worse now; look what progress did.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: First-call rock drummer Kenny Aronoff talks about his nearly two-decade stint with John Mellencamp, sitting in with Chickenfoot, and the lasting impact of jazz.]

He saw loss everywhere. There was a parent’s nightmare in “No One Cares About Me” (“I lost one of my boys to the drug man; it was the only time I cried in my life”); a violent, Dylan-esque narrative in “Easter Eve”; and a soul singer’s crying lament in “Don’t Forget About Me.” Even the seemingly lighthearted “Love at First Sight” had a darker, perhaps murderous portent.

Truth is, though, that John Mellencamp’s No Better Than This is a blinding shard of sunlight compared with his most recent Burnett-produced release, 2008’s stark and weary Life, Death, Love and Freedom. There, we heard a seemingly defeated Mellencamp confessing that “I feel like taking my life, but I won’t.” On the other hand, here Mellencamp eventually found his way to the precipice of real passion during “Clumsy Ol’ World,” even if he ultimately pulled back: “She don’t eat meat, but she smokes cigarettes; she remembers things that I’m trying to forget.”

A theme that perhaps ran throughout had Mellencamp exhorting us to “save some time for living.” It may not be much, he told us, but it’s something. The years had weathered his optimism, but it still peeked out on occasion: “Save some time to dream,” Mellencamp continued, “’cause your dream might save us all.”

That starts, on No Better Than This, with John Mellencamp himself.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • Darren

    I was blown back by this record when it first came out and it’s aging wonderfully. I have it square in my top ten of the decade still. “Graceful Fall” is a stone cold killer.

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