Photo Credit: Bryan Lasky
One thing that’s impossible to deny, for better or worse, is that John Mellencamp’s voice is not what it once was. On his twenty-fourth studio album, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, the veteran rocker’s singing sound deeper, rougher, and considerably more gravelly (part of this could be just aging, but probably has more to do with Mellencamp being a life-long cigarette smoker). From the opening cut “I Always Lie to Strangers”, it’s pretty much impossible not to hear it and think of Tom Waits. Right down to the mellow, bluesy manner in which the song is played (although the influence of Bob Dylan is apparent on the track as well).
To be fair, “sounding” like either Waits or Dylan is certainly not a bad thing, but it’s also the most recently audible result of what’s been a gradual departure for the artist formally known as John Cougar. Whether by necessity or design, almost the entire first half of Strictly a One-Eyed Jack follows a similar route. Country-ish “Driving in the Rain” is a bit more uptempo but still somber, and like much of the album, it makes liberal use of instruments often found on roots music, such as violins and accordions.
The bluesy “I Am a Man That Worries”, as the title would suggest, is a bit more literal, reflecting the way that anxieties sometimes increase as time goes on when the knowledge that supposedly comes with age should instead be placating them. By contrast, the haunting mid-tempo “Sweet Honey Brown” definitely takes another cue from Dylan in terms of the ambiguity of the lyrics (“The show is over // And the monkey is dead”) right down to the subject of the title: “I’m just sitting here waiting // For sweet honey brown” (although “Sweet Honey Brown” is heroin – we know only ‘cause we looked it up). This track comes with another surprise in the form of U2-type guitars which show up throughout the songs, making this the first real hint of the re-emergence of a sound from an era usually more associated with Mellencamp.
It took, ironically, the participation of another veteran rocker to bring back the more familiar Mellencamp sound on the album: “Did You Say Such a Thing” is one of three tracks on the album to feature none other than Bruce Springsteen on guitar and vocals, and this one is a definite throwback to some of Mellencamp’s ’80s rockers like “Hurts So Good” and “Tumbling Down” (even the fitting simplicity of the lyrics reflects this). This sound returns later on the record on “Lie to Me” (both songs also boast a strong Rolling Stones influence). Another of their peers, Billy Joel, doesn’t appear on the album but seems to be there in spirit: Both “Gone Too Soon” and “Life Full of Rain” uses piano similar to that which Joel was doing during The Stranger era (no other musicians who are particularly well-known play on One-Eyed Jack, even though the all the instrumentation is extremely tight).
Among the other two Springsteen collaborations, “Wasted Days” (originally released, along with a video, last October) is another bleak one thematically, about looking back at one’s life and wondering if they could have – or should have – done more with it. In reality, neither Springsteen nor Mellencamp needs to worry that their time hasn’t been well spent, and that includes this album. Strictly a One-Eyed Jack is already a historical effort because of the participation of Springsteen, and we can hope there might be more collaborations between the two in the future. But as for just Mellencamp, what we’re hearing on the album is an artist who’s evolved (and still evolving), not just trying to recycle his past or coast on it. That’s strictly a good thing.