John Mellencamp, who turns 59 later this year, has been making this brand of American country-blues-tinged rock music since the mid seventies. In 2008 he was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where he joined some of his major influences, the likes of Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, as well as contemporaries like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. The only question is why did it take them so long to recognise him? Anyway, the point is Mellencamp has pedigree. And he has nothing left to prove.
With that in mind, perhaps, he's released No Better Than This, an album of new material recorded as live, using all vintage gear, and with little or no post-production. The story of the album, then, is as much about its recording as it is its music; the album is a statement (from a lesser man it could be a called gimmick). But don't worry on that front. Mellencamp's songwriting talent shows no absolutely signs of diminishing. The result is an absolutely timeless album. No Better Than This could literally have been recorded at any time in the last 60 years, and in any era it would have been received as a triumph.
It seems crass to pick apart an album of this quality, to tell you that this track is better than that. Or maybe I'm just not qualified to do so, because to me they all sound pretty damn good. It's better that I just try to express the lasting impression that the album leaves you with; it's one of warmth, of significance, almost of having been in the presence of greatness.
The West End is a subtle and beautiful blues track, which gives way the haunting fiddle of Right Behind Me, where Mellencamp comes across like a latterday Robert Johnson growling about the devil "standing behind me whistling in my ear 'it's time to go'".
Skip forward a little we are also treated to Mellencamp's more countrified side on the wistful Thinking About You, or the Johhny Cash-esque No One Cares About Me.
No Better Than This really is an album, not a mere collection of songs, and it should be listened to and enjoyed as a whole. Anyone with more than a passing interest in blues or country music, or good old time rock 'n' roll should be making bee-line to buy this record.
Final Score: 90%