Since the release of his vintage 2010 gem, No Better Than This, heartland bard John Mellencamp has garnered more attention for his 2011 divorce from model Elaine Irwin and recently-ended relationship with Meg Ryan than his musical output, which includes a live album from 2003 released this past July; the soundtrack for Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a gothic musical Mellencamp conceived with Stephen King and T Bone Burnett; and the annual Farm Aid benefit concert which he cofounded with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in 1985.
The outspoken poster boy for Americana before the term denoted a musical genre, Mellencamp has fully embraced its sound under the tutelage of Burnett, beginning with 2008’s amped-up folk release, Life Death Love and Freedom. With the release of Plain Spoken – his third with Burnett in the fold – the well of inspiration that sprung forth on that album and 2010’s No Better Than This has seemingly run dry. Having recorded No Better Than This in mono at revered studios across America, Plain Spoken finds Mellencamp returning to his native Indiana, delivering a rote batch of songs that retrace former glory and filch from topical themes.
Burnett, serving as executive producer, looms large, providing his leaden guitar on the weathered gothic “Tears in Vain” and the closing conspiracy rag “Lawless Times”, with trifling lyrics that call out financiers, the NSA, pedophile priests and power-abusing lawmen, painting Mellencamp more as a grandfatherly curmudgeon than poet laureate of the common man. More bayou than Rust Belt on the messianic “The Brass Ring”, Mellencamp recounts a tale of a dissolute mother whose actions are judged against a false sense of piety.
The wiliness that marked 1985’s Scarecrow is still apparent on the acoustic opening track “Troubled Man”; playing the role of unrepentant jester, Mellencamp’s narrator admits to having “Always traveled the hell fire road / To chase the sweet smell of sin / I am a troubled man.” Mellencamp’s ravaged voice – an American treasure unto itself – adds credibility to the pop-theology of “Sometimes There’s God”. Teetering close to breaking the Eighth Commandment, the melody of the album’s highest point, “The Company of Cowards”, is nicked from “Lonely Ol’ Night”. Striving to reach the anthem status of televised advertising staple “Our Country” from 2007’s Freedom’s Road – his last true “rock” record – Mellencamp brings the schlock on “Freedom of Speech”, a cataloging of off-brand patriotism with lines like “We should all try / To keep the Golden Rule / And cherish our freedom / At home and in our schools.”
Under no immediate obligation to record a follow up to his last two career-redefining albums given his recent “lifetime recording contract”, perhaps Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Mellencamp sought to change the story that has ran the last three years. While Plain Spoken lives up to its title’s billing, sadly, its by-the-numbers approach to Americana kowtows to the idyllic Everyman version of Middle-American values, replacing its author’s former subversive rebuttal of the American Dream. Without Burnett directly quarterbacking the affair, the sepia overlay that tinted Life Death Love and Freedom and No Better Than This is too transparent this time around.