Quarantine suits John Mellencamp fine. He likes being alone—painting, writing somber music, brooding—and the solitary life complements the dusty folk-music fields Mellencamp has been plowing for the last couple of decades. He never wanted to be a pop singer, never wanted to hang out after the show. And as Mellencamp has gotten older, and the rollicking heartland anthems of his 1980s hit-making heyday have been consigned to oldies stations, Mellencamp has dropped the rock persona entirely and stripped his songs down to scratchier, scorched-earth, largely-acoustic music rooted in rustic folk and blues idioms. Ain’t that Americana?
Producer T Bone Burnett helped Mellencamp roll things back to a leaner, sparer style on 2008’s Life Death Love and Freedom and even further into rough-hewn folkiness on 2010’s No Better Than This and 2014’s Plain Spoken. Time and a four-packs-a-day habit helped Mellencamp’s lived-in rasp get even raspier as the songwriter meditated on mortality, regrets, and the conflicts that we carry within us to the end.
Then again, his songs were always filled with a certain bleakness. His biggest hits—from “Jack & Diane” to “Pink Houses” to “Check It Out”—are freighted with life’s disappointments, albeit masked by what sounds like fist-pumping musical bravado. The juxtapositions between Mellencamp’s musical swagger and his downcast lyrics fooled everybody. To this day, packed crowds at football games joyfully sing along to “Oh, yeah, life goes on / Long after the thrill of living is gone.”
But an undercurrent of existential fear has always been part of the Mellencamp milieu. He was barely in his 30s when he was writing about someday being buried in his “Small Town”. In “Authority Song”, he sang, “Growin’ up leads to growin’ old and then to dyin’ / And dyin’ to me don’t sound like all that much fun.” Hell, a 20-year-old kid, performing as John Cougar was already offering the advice to hold on to 16 as long as you can.
But now, at 70, Mellencamp puts the lyrical melancholy front and center and wraps it in a sad musical shroud to match. For Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, Burnett is gone, in favor of Mellencamp’s production and the backing of longtime members of his touring band. The result is his most homegrown album ever, a dozen new originals that make up a song cycle about taking stock of one’s life as the end draws near, all narrated by the One-Eyed Jack, a stand-in character for Mellencamp. (The cover art depicting an eye-patched Mellencamp was painted by Mellencamp’s son, Speck.)
The arrangements are lean, at times desolate, and Mellencamp delivers the songs in a wasted croak that will draw comparisons to Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. Likewise, there are musical echoes of the Waits-style weary-carny or dead-of-night barfly archetypes and the pre-rock explorations favored by 2000s Dylan. Throughout, Mellencamp emphasizes his growl and widens his vibrato. Time waits for no man but Tom Waits for Mellencamp.
So now that Mellencamp finds himself rounding life’s final turns—he recently told an interviewer that he figures he has about “ten summers left”—the emotional weight of the accumulation of years and the inventorying of a lifetime of relationships have Mellencamp in the mood to ruminate about loss and little else. In the loping, accordion-abetted “Driving in the Rain”, the narrator compares the grace of youth to the harsher realities of later life: “When I was young…I saw people smiling / Happiness was guaranteed / But now there’s so many crying / And that’s all my eyes can see.” The narrator of the album-closing “A Life Full of Rain” observes that “there’s a blue-eyed world that said it once loved you / But that was in your youth / Long, long ago” but now realizes that “it’s all been a trick / A little sleight of hand.”
For decades, Mellencamp has been writing about fighting for dreams amid dark realities. Strictly a One-Eyed Jack is the sound of shadows overtaking the twilight and rendering one’s old dreams no longer visible. In these songs, the narrator does not think much of himself but knows he is not alone in his shortcomings. In “I Always Lie to Strangers”, the narrator beats himself up across minor chords and a drowsy fiddle, but points out that “this world is run by more crooked men than me”. After all these years, Mellencamp is more convinced than ever that some people ain’t no damn good.
People who tell lies make for a prominent motif on the record. While he admits to always lying to strangers, Mellencamp is quick to point out that people who talk shit about him can’t be trusted in “Did You Say Such a Thing”. In the life-as-poker allegory of “Simply a One-Eyed Jack”, players “are telling stories / That are impossible to believe.” Toward the album’s end, on “Lie to Me”, he appears to have resigned to accept the inevitable of our worst instincts: “You can lie to me / Lord knows we’re used to it.”
Mellencamp even sounds pessimistic about his continued vitality as a musician. He has become the singer of the sad, sad song in “Lonely Ol’ Night” who is singing about standing in the shadows of love. But now that song is “Sweet Honey Brown” on which he declares, “The show is over / And the monkey is dead / Turn that music down / Put that cold rag on my head.” And the saving power of love in his old songs—everyone needs a hand to hold on to—has given way to the hopeless heartbreak of the piano ballad “Gone So Soon”. He once sang that “sometimes love don’t feel like it should”. For Mellencamp these days, the sometimes in that line sounds like naive idealism.
But for all of the lyrical bummers on the album, Mellencamp remains a writer of sturdy melodies. Each song contains instrumental embroidery that gives the record a subtle but artistic sonic beauty: the vocal background sighs that punctuate “Driving in the Rain”, the mournful trumpet solo in “Gone So Soon”, Miriam Sturm’s harmonizing twin fiddles on “Chasing Rainbows”, the chain-gang rattles and shouts in the John Lee Hooker-esque “I Am a Man That Worries”.
And, yes, Bruce Springsteen shows up, another septuagenarian rock legend who knows a little something about the darkness on the edge of town. Springsteen contributes to “Did You Say Such a Thing”, which doesn’t say much of anything. But it evokes the most classic-Coug sound on the album and proves that Mellencamp’s upper register is still powerful and relatively clear when he wants it to be. Springsteen harmonizes on the chorus and executes one of his trademark guitar-strangulation solos, and on “Wasted Days”, Bruce gets his own verse, jumping in long enough to sing, “The end is coming / It’s almost here.” Like Mellencamp, it’s a theme Springsteen has been mining since he was a kid; he wrote, “you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore” when he was 24.
In the end, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack is an album of cohesively designed and beautifully articulated performances and arrangements from an artist whose tough swagger always belied a pained vulnerability. Moreover, despite being a songwriter who has decided that his crazy dreams just came and went, Mellencamp pours himself into his music with an undiminished passion. The album is a pleasure to listen to—even if for Mellencamp what used to hurt so good now just hurts.