John Mellencamp is a certified American treasure. The rock and roll hall-of-famer cemented his legend long ago as one of the most steadfast rockers in American history. Now, with the release of his new album Plain Spoken, Mellencamp proves he isn’t going anywhere. In his 60’s, Mellencamp is less denim-clad rockstar and a more reflective artist, his voice full of character and wisdom from a life on the rock and roll road.
Plain Spoken covers a variety of lyrical content in it’s ten song track list, from lost love to political views and world issues. It opens with Troubled Man, a song about unfulfilled promise and a perfectly fitting guitar riff for a Mellencamp record. It reintroduces us to that unmistakable husky voice most artists would have to smoke a pack of cigarettes just to get close to. Mellencamp sounds weary with a message and Troubled Man grabs your attention right away. The Isolation Of Mister has a similar vibe, and is a conversational piece about a lost man that has given up on any hope.
Mellencamp explores his faith in Sometimes There’s God and his political views in Freedom Of Speech without ever sounding preachy or manipulative. While the lyrics are a little cliche, the violin accompaniment in the latter takes the record to a more bluesy place than ever. While these tracks are okay, I have to argue that Mellencamp is always at his best with character pieces, and luckily there are plenty.
Mellencamp is a story-teller. It’s incredible to me that in a three and a half minute Mellencamp song you can feel just as attached to the characters as those you’ve watched over years on television. Anyone remember Jack and Diane? He does it again on Plain Spoken and it’s here the rockstar truly shines. The Company Of Cowards is an upbeat little folk song with a nice harmonica feature, The Courtesy Of Kings boasts one of the strongest vocal performances on the record, while The Brass Ring is a story of the ‘saddest girl in the whole wide world.’ But what they all have in common are the characters – and they are brilliant. The best of the bunch for me though is also the saddest, Blue Charlotte. This song is about the last days of a man spent with his dying wife. It’s stripped back and truly beautiful with some of the most poignant and heartbreaking lyrics we’ve seen from Mellencamp. Look away, look away / They’re so precious these last few days / Look away, look away / We watch as autumn comes to an end, Blue Charlotte.
While Blue Charlotte is the saddest, Tears In Vain is the most personal. The off-accent beat gives the track an introspective sadness from the beginning while lyrics speak to lost love, a nod to his recent divorce perhaps? Tears In Vain feels exposed and extremely raw, which Mellencamp usually reserves for his fictional characters. It’s nice to get a glimpse into his own story. The record wraps with Lawless Times. A dirty, gritty rock song with a bratty take on what the world has become. While it’s a bit depressing thinking Mellencamp could be this disgusted with the times, it’s catchy as hell.
While Plain Spoken is definitely a less highly produced, fully fledged rock anthem like R.O.C.K in the U.S.A for example, this bare, folky sound feels like the stories of a hard working man, now kicking up his heels and reflecting on an incredible journey.