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John Mellencamp’s “Plain Spoken” Reviewed

Sometimes it's John

Sometimes it’s John

(This was originally written for Onstage.com)

Last week on the Tonight Show, John Mellencamp sat in with the Roots and before the first break Jimmy Fallon iterated Mellencamp’s litany of hits punctuated by a Questlove rimshot: “Pink House” , “Jack And Diane”, “Small Town”, “Hand to Hold On To“ “R.O.C.K. In The USA”… on and on and on. It was a reminder of just how deep the Mellencamp catalog is and personal faves “Hurts So Good” and “Rain On The Scarecrow”, the former a Stones rip Bon Jovi would be proud of, the latter a terrifying blues track of such darkness Dylan could put his name to it, a reminder of where a love of the Stones can take you.

Last weekend Mellencamp performed at his 27 th farm Aid. Yeah, the small town boy FKA Cougar has gone well past his hard rocking, honeysuckled early days and stands as an elder statesman, with his superb latest album Plain Spoken as a testament to how far he has flown.

The probably with Plain Spoken is the problem with Mellencamp, in a world of poets and dreamers, he is a straightforward guy, who took the glam out of classic rock and presented it as straight ahead hard hitting rock and roll and then grew older, deeper, more worried, more concerned, as he told Rolling Stone two years ago, “I write about the human condition”. It isn’t that he doesn’t write metaphor but rather that he handles it with such unblinkered intensity you can’t hide from it.

On his new self-produced album T-bone Burnett is the executive producer this time), Plain Spoken, this can come across as brusque to the point of take it or leave it. On “Sometimes It’s God”, Mellencamp sounds like a young Leonard Cohen and he expresses the way in which faith works with a straightforwardness that stands in stark contrast to a Dylan. Mellencamp sang “Sometimes it’s God, sometimes it’s just not”, Dylan sang “I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea, sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other time it’s only me.” A similar sentiment but a world of difference, one assumes an instant understanding, the other needs to deepen the thought and how. But the idea remains the same.

This is a real ability to express yourself clearly it the starkest of terms is a gift and it becomes even clearer on the nursery rhyme civic lesson “Freedom Of speech”, which could be written for John’s five grandchildren, with a jaunty violin leading to a sing song with a snappy answer to freedom of religion, “freedom to believe that we’re all candy canes.” Say Amen and pass the skittles.

The lightness of the track is passing fair, because everything around it is darker. Burnett has been working with Mellencamp since 2008 and Burnett is like Rick Rubin at least in that he likes to record his heroes plainly. But this has more of a rockers feel, more of a flourish than Mellencamp’s last two albums There are shadings, a ringing Keith Richard-y guitar on “The Brass Ring” a smashing harp on “Lawless Time”, to pull you into the songs. “The Company Of Kings” is very Dylan but not Dylan of any time, it seems to hark back to the Dylan of John Wesley Harding, “Tears In Vain” apparently about John’s divorce is as dark as anything on Blood On The Tracks and again the harp and the drums, pull you into the nightmare story of infidelity.

Perhaps the best song of a set which maintains the highest of standards for a full 43 minutes and ten songs, “The Courtesy Of Kings” seems to revel in its love song, a lilting waltz and a tribute to a woman.

I was reading about England in the 1600s about the landed gentry, why to be part of the politics of the country you had to own land, money wasn’t enough. The reason was simple: if you owned land you’d fight for the land, if you had money you would simply move it elsewhere. This is a truth Mellencamp seems to instinctively understand, these songs are about people with a different sort of understanding of life, a different type of connection to the land: that’s why he plays Farm Aid. Plain spoken, from the earth to the earth, American homeland, Mellencamp plain spokenly speaks for it and us on a fine, folk rocker album.

Grade: B+

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