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?