Over the last 10 years, John Mellencamp has moved steadily away from the studio-slick punch of his heyday in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and the rootsier approach he has taken of late has served him well. His songs have always conveyed a rural-minded brand of populism, and his latest album, No Better Than This, continues his evolution into a modern-day folk hero. The record also happens to be one of the most focused, tightly written sets of Mellencamp’s career.
For No Better Than This, Mellencamp drew inspiration from some off-the-beaten-path recording locales, including the basement of the First African Baptist Church in Savannah (a noted stop along the Underground Railroad) and the room at San Antonio’s Gunter Hotel where Robert Johnson first recorded. He even put in some time in Sun Studios, where Sam Phillips worked with Elvis. Producer T Bone Burnett has said that the album was “haunted” by the spirits of these makeshift studios, and it’s an apt description. With heavy reverb on both the guitars and vocal tracks of standout tracks like “A Graceful Fall” and “The West End,” Mellencamp sounds like he’s the frontman for a ghost band.
What’s most striking about the writing on these tracks is their economy. Throughout his career, Mellencamp has shown a weakness for ambling digressions and overworked metaphors. Here, he doesn’t mince words. The title track, which turns on lines like “Give me back my youth/And don’t let me waste it this time,” is both wistful and self-deprecating, while “Right Behind Me” cleverly punctuates its heady spiritual questions with a simple answer of “No.” Even the lengthy narrative of “Easter Eve” is focused on driving forward its plot about the repercussions of a bar fight.
The minimalism of these songs fits perfectly with this acoustic blues style that Mellencamp began to explore on Life Death Love and Freedom, and he and Burnett lean more heavily on those blues tropes here. While the overall aesthetic of the record isn’t revolutionary by any means, it works for Mellencamp’s trademark chain smoker’s rasp. The country-inflected “Don’t Forget About Me” is one of the most effective vocal turns of his career. “Thinking About You,” on which Mellencamp seems to be doing an impression of Bob Dylan’s affected warble, is less successful, but it’s one of the few missteps on the album.
No Better Than This works as well as it does because it plays to Mellencamp’s strengths. His genuine empathy for rural living and his occasional hell-raising both come through in equal measure. And despite the heavy blues influence that Burnett brings to the project, it’s still obvious that Mellencamp has the heart of a folk singer. It’s the tension and the cooperation among those competing forces that makes Mellencamp’s 25th album one of his finest.