Seventy-year old John Mellencamp is still ticking and kicking. He’s usually in the news about who he is dating rather than his music, but he still has a loyal legion of fans.
Cougar was a nickname he hated, a marketing decision to bypass using his last name, which didn’t sound like a pop star. John Cougar, Johnny Cougar, John Cougar Mellencamp…all ridiculous names. It look him awhile to break free of those guiding his career, thankfully he did and started calling his own shots.
Jack and Diane didn’t quite catch the American Dream, jobs were exported overseas, the economy and corporate greed squeezed out the family farmer, healthcare became unaffordable as they aged, and they had to move in with their kids. Jack got ED and Diane turned into a Trumper.
Not really, but a lot of water has flowed under that bridge and young love is a dry and faded corsage, pressed into their memory book.
Mellencamp returns with Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, a self-produced album of his moody, sepia sounding tales from the Little Bastard (as he calls himself). His songs may be far from his slickly produced 1980s fare, but what they may lack in commercial gloss, they make up for in richly painted soundscapes of life’s pallet of textures. Mellencamp is an accomplished painter, so I wanted to lob some artistic language into the review.
For years, Mellencamp has been described as a “roots” or Americana singer-songwriter. He was one of the first commercial pop artists to mix fiddles and other countrified sounds onto his recordings, while singing about small town life, the flight of farmers and the vanishing American Dream.
I would not call Strictly a One-Eyed Jack a roots album. Yes, there are fiddles, dobros and country stylings. It has a stripped-down presentation, but I hear Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, John Prine and John Hiatt all over these songs. I’m not implying that Mellencamp is copying them, but he taps into the soulful, jazzy and folksiness you identify in these artists. This may be his most varied album, stylistically. I can even picture him dueting with Perry Como, wearing a cardigan with his Marlboro and highball.
Mellencamp is a revered songwriter, but I don’t quite look at with the same stature as Springsteen or Dylan as a lyricist, though his songs stand the test of time. Is this album as good as Springsteen’s Western Stars or Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways? I say no, Mellencamp’s album lacks a unifying vision; but it is still a very good one.
Mellencamp shares another quality with those other artists, a gravelly and low register voice. If you are looking for the voice of “Hurts So Good”, keep looking. On this collection of songs he sounds more like Louie Armstrong than Bruce Springsteen. What Mellencamp’s voice can no longer do, he instead uses it as a conveyor of a weathered and confessional life. A coarse voice never stopped Bob Dylan or Kris Kristofferson. The more they drank and smoked, the darker the shades of the stories they sang; the same for Mellencamp.
The album’s songs with Springsteen have pop and swagger. In my opinion, these two giants should have worked together sooner.
- “I Always Lie to Strangers” 3:36 A quiet acoustic song. Odd choice to open the album.
- “Driving In the Rain” 3:25 A mid tempo song, a shuffle beat, I imagine Louie Armstrong growling through this bouncy song. Not bad.
- “I Am a Man That Worries” 4:33 A Tom Waits, jazzy-blues number. I imagine the musicians dancing around the junkyard in a music video.
- “Streets of Galilee” 2:49 Mellencamp makes use of acoustic string instruments on this album. Another quiet song, exemplifying his low, ragged voice. Nice musicianship.
- “Sweet Honey Brown” 5:18 Jazzy, folk vibe with a riffy guitar. Haunting, like Bob Dylan from his Hurricane period.
- “Did You Say Such a Thing” (featuring Bruce Springsteen) 3:39 With an R&B/New Orleans riff, it cuts loose with a salty guitar solo.
- “Gone So Soon” 3:31 Bluesy, slow and melancholy torch piano-horn song. Mellencamp’s voice is sad and reflective, embracing the hurt.
- “Wasted Days” (featuring Bruce Springsteen) 4:31 A song deserving of both these singers. Each take verses. Almost a Van Morrison song.
- “Simply a One-Eyed Jack” 4:41 Mellencamp uses this title song as an epic, a thoughtful, lyric heavy song atop a usable melody, just a very repetitive one.
- “Chasing Rainbows” 3:27 A Bob Dylanesque song with ringing guitar fills. Very nice song.
- “Lie to Me” 3:30 Bluesy, like John Hiatt.
- “A Life Full of Rain” (featuring Bruce Springsteen) 3:40 The closing track is a good one, a poignant and reflective song.
Most Recent Mellencamp Albums
To understand Simply a One-Eyed Jack it helps to look back at Mellencamp’s most recent albums and how he moved more fully into this sound.
Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (2017) is a mainly country-folk effort, and a collaboration with Carlene Carter on five songs. “Indigo Sunset” and “What Kind of Man Am I” are standout duets. His girlfriend at the time, Christie Brinkley provides background vocals.
“Grandview” is a bluesy-rock song featuring Martina McBride. It cooks with the help of Izzy Stradlin on guitar.
Overall, not a bad album, just an uneven one. The musicianship is top-notch, but you’d expect it to be.
Other People’s Stuff (2018) is a collection of previously recorded songs, most of which he didn’t write, but many of which appeared on his other albums or recorded for other events. I expected a Bob Dylan rootsesque type of hillbilly-Americana vibe. There is that, along a swing and foot-stomping groove, as if you were participating in a jam session in a barn. Mellencamp has worked around the edge of Woody Guthrie and the working man theme often, though less political, but a champion of the American struggle and journey.
There are a few curious selections, “I Don’t Know Why I Love You”, a song co-written by Stevie Wonder, and recorded by The Rolling Stones. This version is not bad.
“To the River” and “Teardrops Will Fall” have the most familiar Mellencamp sound, they could have appeared on almost any of his albums.
This album reached number seven on the Billboard chart and number one on the rock album chart. That’s a head-scratcher, hardly a rock album, and not one you’d hear on the radio – but it speaks to Mellencamp’s appear and the strength of the material.
4 thoughts on “John “Don’t Call Me Cougar” Mellencamp: Strictly a One-Eyed Jack (Review)”
I actually dig “Strictly a One-Eyed Jack”, though I will add I’ve dug John Mellencamp for many years, so I’m probably a bit biased. His transition from straight heartland rock, which btw I like as well, really started with “The Lonesome Jubilee” from 1987, probably still my favorite Mellencamp album, along with “Rough Harvest” and “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies”.
Yes, Mellencamp’s voice has changed dramatically over the decades, largely thanks to chain-smoking. I read he has the somewhat strange theory that as long as you don’t combine heavy smoking and drinking, it’s somehow not really bad for you.
Seemingly, his heart attack is age 42 is in the distant past. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to judge here. Just stating the facts.
With all of that being said, his rough voice, which sounds like Tom Waits after he cleared this throat, is a great fit to his songs these days!
I read in an interview that he really likes the deeper, rougher voice. It certainly change how, and what he sings, but he’s embraced it.
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I recall reading that as well. In fact, he even said that’s the main reason why he wants to continue chain-smoking. He’s convinced it “helps” his voice!
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That’s a strange thing to believe, with his history of heart problems. He’s obviously going to live his own way. God bless him.
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