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The pandemic has been a banner 18 months for melancholic self-reflection, and art often reflects reality.
Its first chord is as grim a sound as 12 strings can make, and that tone carries on through the album. Like any good writer — and there's no denying the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is that, even some years removed from his megahits — this does not mean the songs all sound the same.
Mellencamp's 25th studio album has its slow, almost jazz-like piano ballads ("Gone so Soon"), violin-thumping country tunes ("Driving in the Rain") and even the faintest hint of pop ("Wasted Days," with Bruce Springsteen), but central lyrical themes of deception, rain and analyzing an eventful life carry on throughout, as in the opening verse from "Wasted Days":
For fans who've plotted Mellencamp's trajectory as an artist over the decades, it's worth tracking his latest movements through the album. For the rest of us, it's a mixed bag.
Its strength is in the musicianship of Mellencamp's merry band of mostly Hoosiers (drummer Dane Clark, pianist Troye Kinnett, bassist John Gunnell and violinist Miriam Sturm have roots here).
The weakness, unfortunately, is the gravel-chewing vocals Mellencamp went with for most of its songs — be it from a conscious choice or necessity as the years pile up.
This works well on some tracks, like the bluesy "I am a Man that Worries," but the vocals start to feel repetitive over musical compositions that are otherwise diverse, with just as many accordion solos as guitar solos and plenty of exploration in between.
"Wasted Days," the lead single and Mellencamp's first recorded duet with Springsteen, is the rare exception and, perhaps as a result, one of the album's best songs. Mellencamp lifts off the gravel as he harmonizes with The Boss, and they follow a more melodic pop format.
Springsteen also gives meaningful contributions through harmonizing vocals and guitar solos to "Did You Say Such a Thing," which brings a very 1980s Mellencamp-esque electric guitar-hook driven sound, and "A Life Full of Rain," a track that wraps up the album well after a few lackluster songs (the title track and "Chasing Rainbows").
In "Gone so Soon," Mellencamp's singing descends into an almost Louis Armstrong-like vocal impression. The song even features a trumpet solo. But that choking soulfulness works for the slower, more somber song.
However, the style doesn't hit as well in the more up-tempo songs, such as "Simply a One-Eyed Jack," which is also peppered with nonsensical lyrics that are generally a departure from the album's thematic structure — despite Mellencamp naming the album after it.
Maybe he just wanted to carve a way to slap an eyepatch over the portrait his son, Speck, painted of him as the cover art.
The album is decidedly uncommercial, and I can't see any of its tracks supplanting any of his past hits currently cemented — apparently by an unwritten rule I'm just starting to experience — into once-an-hour status on Indianapolis pop and rock radio.
But that's not necessarily a bad thing when your legacy is set. Mellencamp has a supposed lifetime record deal through Republic Records and knows who he is.
Whether anyone thinks he hit or missed certain marks on the new album probably means very little to him. There's even a song on the album, "Did You Say Such a Thing," that spells it out:
What people say about me
Don't amount to much
I guess some may be true
But who can you trust?
It also lambasts someone for "talking smack" — as well as a more colorful version of that sentiment — "in the papers."
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Rory Appleton is the pop culture reporter at IndyStar. Contact him at 317-552-9044 and email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @RoryDoesPhonics.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: John Mellencamp's 'Strictly a One-Eyed Jack' album a grim, mixed bag