Music

John Mellencamp: No Better Than This

John Mellencamp finally hits the late-career creative reset button and makes one of his best ever.


John Mellencamp
Label: Rounder
Title: No Better Than This
UK Release Date: 2010-08-17
US Release Date: 2010-08-17
Cover
Label website
Artist website

John Mellencamp calls No Better Than This his "most rebellious record ever" and who are we to argue? No disrespect to Mellencamp, but it's not like his long career has been filled with crazy detours into free form jazz and electronica. He's never gone Christian, never done anything like his pal Lou Reed and set an entire album to Edgar Allen Poe's writing, never fully challenged his audience. About the most risky thing he's done is offer up one of his better late career songs, "Our Country", to a truck commercial, which probably paid off handsomely in his bank account, but soured a lot of people on his music because of the tune's ubiquity and jingoistic vibe.

All that said, No Better Than This is something for which Mellencamp was long overdue: a defining album that resets his creative clock and reminds everyone how great a songwriter and musician that he really is. Because this, his 19th studio album, is truly brilliant and it's as good as anything he's ever released, which is saying a lot. Dylan had Time Out of Mind, Springsteen had The Rising, and any number of Mellencamp's less popular peers -- John Hiatt, Graham Parker, Greg Brown -- have all made albums that reinvigorated their relevancy and made us return to their newer work hungry for more.

What makes No Better Than This so great is its consistency and artistic commitment. Mellencamp recorded it in a creative burst while on tour with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. With T-Bone Burnett as his producer, he'd take quick breaks from the road and visit iconic studios across the country, recording where blues legend Robert Johnson did in San Antonio or in the historic Sun Studios. U2 tried something like this with Rattle and Hum in the late '80s and it came across pretentious and gimmicky. In Mellencamp's hands the recording process is not only a tribute to the masters, but also the ideal way to bring these 13 songs to life. It makes sense that music this personal and intimate be recorded this way, with a group of musicians standing together in a room, playing at the same time without the benefit of overdubs and studio trickery.

The fact that it's in mono could come across as a silly reach for lo-fi cred, sort of a "fuck you" to the heavily compressed, over-produced music that's on the radio now. Instead, the decision is logical for these songs and feels less like a statement and more like a commonsense artistic decision. You don't want to hear something as dark and spooky as "The West End" in pristine stereo, just as you can't imagine the gentle "Thinking About You" spruced up and blasting out of the speakers.

These are songs that are meant to sound like they have some dust on them. Mellencamp sings in a relaxed voice, never shouting and while some of the songs have an anthemic quality lingering in the background, he doesn't jack up the energy. Thank goodness, because something like the bluesy cautionary tale "Right Behind Me" with its declaration, "This ain't no picnic I'm living, just a resting place before I go" would sound mighty strange in any other format. Recording on a 55-year-old Ampex mono tape machine, the musicians -- acoustic guitar, fiddle, bass, mandolin, drums and a few electric guitars on the rockers -- cut them after a few takes, giving the songs a fresh feeling and nothing's over cooked.

Finally, "No Better Than This" feels deeply personal, from the lyrics to the way Mellencamp chooses to present the music. He's working in classic idioms –- rockabilly on the title cut, Johnny Cash-like vintage rocking on "Coming Down the Road", John Prine folk on the sly, funny "Love at First Sight" and the closer "Clumsy Ol' World" -- that are familiar and comfortable. At the same time, he has something to say and while it seems clear he’s often singing about himself (although one never knows), it feels an awful like he's singing to all of us.

The first track, "Save Some Time to Dream" is an open-hearted call to take care of yourself and everyone around you. Lyrics like "Try to keep your mind open and accept your mistakes / Save some time for livin' and always question your faith / Could it be that this is all there is? / Could it be that there’s nothin' more? / Save some time to dream, 'cos your dream might save us all” have a nakedness that feels like an old friend calling up to check in and give you a pep talk.

Dream references pop up in various songs, along with ruminations on mortality. There's a timeless vibe throughout, with the country tune "A Graceful Fall" sounding like something that would come out of an old radio in the 1950s. "Easter Eve" is a strange, Dylan-like story song in which the protagonist's 14-year-old son ends up getting in a fight with some guy in a bar the night before Easter and the events in the tune could be taking place now or 40 years ago. "Thinking About You" starts out with the singer saying he's not nostalgic before spending the rest of the song addressing an old girlfriend who he's dying to check in on just to see how she's doing.

These kind of images -- personal, intimate, timeless -- pop up all over No Better Than This. It's mature without being boring and anyone of a certain age, say over 40, can't help but relate to Mellencamp's message. The album's closest relation among his previous albums is "Big Daddy", the pensive 1989 release that finalized his transition from pop star to crafty singer/songwriter. But No Better Than This is a step beyond his best work, revelatory and free, the sound of a man who's unshackled from commercial considerations or outside influences. And ironically, it's a record that could've been made in 1954, which means it comes out of the speakers sounding remarkably fresh and new.

What could be more rebellious than that?

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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