When I hear the term “heartland rock,” one voice pops up in my head – John Mellencamp. Decades of guitar-based, everyman songs sung in a gritty voice, combined with tireless, real-life advocacy of American farmers and other Midwestern folks, make him the Head of the Heartland. Hell, “Pink Houses” alone would’ve been enough to earn the title. But after four decades of writing songs for the salt of the Earth, is the nearly 70-year-old singer still, well, salty? One pass of his latest record, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, answers that squarely in the affirmative.
For those who strayed from straight-up rock ‘n’ roll sometime around the grunge era, John Mellencamp has remained a busy, creative and interesting character. He’s taken up painting. He produced a musical with Stephen King, The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County (interesting stuff – check out the soundtrack). He remains involved with Farm Aid. And, of course, he’s been writing and recording music all along (2001’s Cuttin’ Heads is a personal favorite). One-Eyed Jack, though, has Mellencamp grumpily embracing his present self, while also throwing a few glances back toward the glory days. Lead track “I Always Lie to Strangers” has Mellencamp, with a voice scarred by a million cigarettes, singing of mistrust both given and earned – “I’ve never taken the high road home/The old low road seems to get me there fast,” the wariness deepened by Miriam Sturm’s ragged violin line. “I Am a Man That Worries” is a bluesy look at angst with a side of menace – “You better get out of my way, boy” – punctuated by Andy York’s ferocious slide work. And “Sweet Honey Brown” is a slinky elegy to the kind drug dependency that ebbs and flows with a long musical career and ends up having a passing resemblance to a love affair – “Haven’t seen your tracks/For a long long while/I’m thinking about quitting on you.”
Tough stuff. So, about that look back at the good ol’ days – it comes when The Boss shows up midway through the record. “Did You Say Such a Thing,” the first true heartland-feel tune on the record, features Springsteen on guitar and harmony vocals on Mellencamp’s anti-cheap-talk screed – “You say you keep the secret/It’s just the people that you tell/Well here’s a little secret/You can go straight to hell.” The album’s first single, “Wasted Days,” is a true duet between the two rock vets counting down their days without throwing them away. And album closer “A Life Full of Rain” is a somber, piano-driven tune about the good times that maybe weren’t so grand – “There’s a blue-eyed world/That said it once loved you/But that was in your youth/Such a long, long time ago.” The mood is drawn along by a Springsteen solo that resembles the work of another 80s heartlander of the Scottish variety, Mark Knopfler.
But this old Indiana rocker isn’t living in a land completely devoid of hope and dreams. “Chasing Rainbows,” with a chiming guitar line that will remind you of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” (or, for younger readers, Brandi Carlile’s “Fulton County Jane Doe”), has Mellencamp, nearly half a century into a successful career, realizing that there’s no ultimate payoff at the end of the road. Rather, it truly is about the journey – “At the end of the rainbow/Turns out it’s not somewhere/Look around it’s everywhere/For anyone who cares. The old man’s been down more roads than just about anyone – he might just know what he’s talking about.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Wasted Days” – A Mellencamp/Springsteen duet is an event that 14-year-old me would never have thought possible.
Strictly a One-Eyed Jack was recorded and mixed by David Leonard and mastered by Bob Ludwig. Additional musicians on the album include Andy York (acoustic and electric guitars, bass, banjo, autoharp, vocals), Troye Kinnett (piano, accordion, organs, harmonica, vocals), Miriam Sturm (violin), John Gunnell (upright bass, electric bass, vocals), Dane Clark (drums, percussion, vocals), Merritt Lear (violin, vocals) and Mike Wanchic (electric guitar, vocals).
Go here to order Strictly a One-Eyed Jack (out Jan. 21): https://www.mellencamp.com/description?albumId=55