No Better Than
On the Rural
Island Def Jam
In 2008, we learned about the revolutionary new high-def format ΧΟΔΕ, invented by T-Bone Burnett in his underground lair, intended to provide audiophile sound via the modest, outdated compact disc. The first album released on the format was John Mellencamp's album Life, Death, Love and Freedom. And now, after two years of inexorable technical progress, we have before us Mellencamp's new album, No Better Than This, which proudly notes on its cover that it was recorded in the format of the future — revolutionary, "mono"-phonic sound. And the common element between the two albums? T-Bone Burnett as producer.
There are perhaps ironies here, but let it be said that No Better Than This is a richer, more complex record than Life, Death, perhaps because Mellencamp literally followed in the path of his elders on the album, recording on a 55-year old tape recorder (the AMPEX 601) in three historically significant settings: Sun Studios in Memphis (the birthplace of Elvis, of course), the First African Baptist Church in Savannah (which may house the oldest African-American congregation in the country) and room 414 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where bluesman Robert Johnson recorded in 1936.
By using vintage equipment, Mellencamp and Burnett almost manage to retroject Mellencamp's work into the era which inspired it: His country shuffles and proto-rock tunes wouldn't sound too out of a place on a lost reel of Sun Studios outtakes, and a Robert Johnson inspired tune, "Right Behind Me," could have been cut by a country blues musician hot on Johnson's tail. This is not to over-state things — these still sound like John Mellencamp songs — but the recording conditions add another layer to the album, and tend to help his work hit its mark, emotionally and musically. Burnett notes in press materials that there are "ghosts" on the record, and credit Mellencamp for drawing them out.
"There's no doubt that anybody's who ever stood up here to accept this award, nobody has put themselves behind the eight ball more than I did," Mellencamp quipped during his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech in 2008. And looking at his releases this year, one imagines him still fighting for respect.
He proved his bona fides with the pilgrimage captured on No Better Than This. And with the four-disc career retrospective released earlier this year, On the Rural Route 7609, he took a liberty more familiar to poets than rock musicians, re-editing and sequencing his work to fit four broad themes corresponding to the four discs. Mellencamp the editor gives plenty more time to his work from the last decade than his earlier, hit-making period (and he mostly neglects those hits, or presents them in outtake or live versions). He annotates each track in a hardbound book accompanying the set, thereby granting himself authoritative word on his body of work as it now stands.
Think of the set as a Collected Songs of John Mellencamp instead of a Collected Poems — and note the literary trappings of both the set (the hardcover book, the titled discs as chapters, Cornell West and Joanne Woodward's unaccompanied readings of "Jim Crow" and "The Real Life," respectively) and No Better Than This (the cover evokes a weathered library book).
Mellencamp makes a convincing case for the seriousness and complexity of his work. The cornpone nostalgia of "Jack and Diane" prototype "Jenny at 16" shares a disc with dark, keenly-observed numbers like "Rain on the Scarecrow," "Jim Crow" and "Big Daddy of them All." On the second disc, Mellencamp acknowledges what happens to dreams deferred on "The Real Life," then demonstrates his political engagement with frankly polemical songs like "To Washington" and "Troubled Land" (an engagement complicated by his attempt to revive truck commercial jingle "Our Country" on the same disc). A third disc provides respite from that impressive display of populist anger with clever character studies such as "Theo and Weird Henry." And the fourth is even more eclectic, but comes full circle with an acoustic version of box set opener "Rural Route," twice-telling the story of the murder and rape of a girl in a meth-addicted backwoods. "Jack and Diane" this is not.
Unlike Rural Route, No Better Than This doesn't take the listener to the crime scene. Even when channeling Robert Johnson (and sharing his sense of dread), taking on a character that "ain't been baptized" and "ain't got no church" or spending time in the forlorn "West End" of town, Mellencamp is working in the realm of folk music that doesn't bear too much the stamp of the writer and that isn't concerned with contemporary events. And while one hears Perkins or Johnson or Dylan at times, Mellencamp doesn't slavishly try to recreate the sounds of their records; that electric guitar, ably played by Marc Ribot and Andy York, is of a modern vintage. And so we aren't forced to compare the results to those who have gone before, wondering just how far we've fallen, and we can enjoy the record on its own terms.