John Mellencamp continues to age like good whiskey with a satisfying swig of rootsy folk and blues on his latest release, “No Better Than This.” If you’ve enjoyed the direction Mellancamp has been traveling, deeper and deeper into the heart of yesteryear with producer T-Bone Burnett, you’ll get a strong kick from what the two have brewed this time around. Mellencamp follows the stripped down feel of 2008’s Life Death Love and Freedom with 13 more new songs that sound and feel like they were written and recorded a long, long time ago in the heart of Americana.
Mellencamp and Burnett accomplish this feat of sounding both old and new at the same time by literally travelling back to a much earlier place and time. These songs were recorded completely in mono in studio’s crowded with ghosts of music’s past; places like Sun Studio in Memphis, a hotel room in Texas where Robert Johnson laid down his version of the blues and the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia. The songs are mostly dry as a bone, with only a minimum of help from a few musicians who have already lived the blues; people like stand-up bass player David Roe, who played with Johnny Cash on the Man-In-Black’s last couple of albums and former Tom Waits’ guitarist Mark Ribot. Crammed into Sun Studios or that San Antonio hotel room with barely room to play, this group lays down a slow and bluesy sound over which Mellencamp can growl a little.
The record opens with the introspective dirge “Save Some Time To Dream,” a cautionary tune in which the narrator wonders:
“Could it be that this is all there is, could it be there’s nothing more at all,
Save some time to dream, cause your dream might save us all.”
Over the last several albums Mellencamp’s songs have matured to reveal an artist, far from his former pop stardom, who’s both hardened by the years and still optimistic, encouraged by the honesty and goodness he sees around him. The title track reflects that optimism as Mellencamp and his band jumps up and jams, as John Mellencamp calls out for salvation in the here and now. Mono has never sounded “no better than this.”
And even though Mellencamp sings on the following track, “Thinking About You” that “it’s not in my nature to be nostalgic at all,” this album like the one before it is thick in the comfort that memories bring. Mellencamp seems to finally be finding a comfortable place where he can stay for awhile. It’s been a long and often bumpy road for the Indiana native, but the past is the place he’s gone looking for on “No Better Than This” and, by God, I do believe he’s stumbled upon a home there.