No Better Than This (2010)
I’m a Mellencamp fan and I’d heard good things about this when it came out, but it was only a year or so back that I acquired it. I gave it a couple of cursory listens and then filed it away as a subject for future investigation.
The future came this week and it hit me upside the head, maybe just about the time Mellencamp’s po’ boy loner–the kind of weary cliche that makes me throw up every defense I have and which no previous singer has so completely broken down–sings about the wife who takes a frying pan upside his head.
Except she isn’t his wife. She’s a woman he’s just spotted her on the street somewhere and exchanged a friendly glance with before spending a few moments describing to the listener–as if they’ve already happened–all the things he could imagine happening if that friendly glance led to matrimony and such. Naturally, by the end of the song, he’s ready to move on, leaving all the possibilities you thought were realities unexplored.
Upon the album’s release, Mellencamp got a lot of publicity out of its gimmick, which was recording the thirteen tracks he had written–every one of which sounds like a folk song or a blues pulled from the bottom of a stack of 78s no one ever heard of, let alone heard out loud–in the Sun Studio, the San Antonio hotel where Robert Johnson was recorded, and a slavery-era church in Savannah, Georgia.
As Greil Marcus and a few others pointed out at the time, the gimmick shouldn’t work but does, because it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. What nobody seems to have gotten around to fully explaining (I can’t say I read every review, but I read a bunch), is just why it doesn’t feel that way, which is because it’s the boldest example of a common conceit–that rare reach that actually qualifies as something nobody pulled off, or probably even thought of, before.
Starting somewhere in the mid-sixties–maybe with the Beach Boys’ Party! LP from 1965, there have been constant attempts of reach back to a mythic past, sometimes near, sometimes distant, and imagine what might have been if rock and roll had gone in a slightly different direction. At its best, in the early music of the Band, or Party! itself, this approach could be revelatory and break open spaces that would have otherwise lain fallow. At its worst, which was most of the time, it could be soul-crushing. Somewhere in between, it could be anything from heartfelt and detailed enough to qualify as honorable, smile-inducing homage (the best work of Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids or Tracey Ullman) to earnest folk music (where I’ve always slotted the strain in Bruce Springsteen’s music that began, and peaked, with Nebraska).
Some of this music got called bold because it seemed to exist in a world where rock and roll never happened. Most of it existed only because rock and roll happened.
On No Better Than This, Mellencamp stretches both ideas past their logical extremes: In the real world, the one we actually live in, he’s a man who could never have been a star without rock and roll because no world but this one would have had him. In the world he creates on this record, he uses his real-world status to imagine–and perfect–a world not where rock and roll never happened (been done) but one where rock and roll is just about to happen. That difference, once it locks in, makes the difference. This week, starting with a casual listen that was different from my previous listenings because I put on headphones, I began to suspect something was up about midway through the first song. By the time Mellencamp closed with a wry chuckle, twelve and a half songs later, I had a new obsession, the kind that rarely happens to me anymore, because I almost never need to listen to something until I figure it out.
The leap between this and every bit of proto, in-the-moment, or retro Americana I’ve ever heard is that, in one key respect, Mellencamp remains who he is. He’s reaching back to the early fifties, not as a star-in-the-making, some great lost voice who would have taken rock and roll in a whole new direction if only some visionary producer or enlightened audience had understood his genius, but as a gifted journeyman with his own ideas about how things should be. He hasn’t gone back in time to be Woody Guthrie or LIttle Richard. He’s gone back to be Harmonica Frank or Lowell Fulson, or, better yet, a forgotten contemporary, with his own little weird niche, which may (Fulson) or may not (Harmonica Frank) one day lead to a modest career.
In other words Mellencamp has imagined the fix he’d be in if rock and roll hadn’t exploded into something that could make somebody like John Mellencamp a star.
How consciously he did this I don’t know, but sometimes–quite often really–the artist knows better than the man. This is an album that keeps asking: “What if this had been all there was?” and then supplies its own answer. Which is along the lines of: “We think we’re lucky we didn’t have to find out…but are we?”
Now you know we’re lucky (i.e. “better off”). And I know we’re lucky. And John Mellencamp sure knows we’re lucky.
But the guy on the record isn’t so sure. And for the length of this record, he stood in the place where John Mellencamp used to be.
I’m not sure any album has ever asked and answered this path-not-taken question in quite the same way before. More than thirty years into a career that could never have happened unless we, and he, have been very lucky indeed, John Mellencamp dared to raise the question of his own worth and the worth of the world we’ve made since rock and roll, with its unbounded promise, first danced out of the shadows.
And I’m going to play you a track now, but I guarantee there is no way to comprehend how exhilarating and disturbing this eerily quiet “mono” music is without getting hold of the album and finding some zone quiet enough and slow enough to absorb it whole, without interference from the modern world.