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John Mellencamp, Plain Spoken – Review 1
Looking back tends to open up different perspectives of your life. One hopes that for the most part those perspectives show you have touched lives in good ways, and in turn your life has been enriched by those around you. It would seem John Mellencamp has spent some time looking in the mirror and not always being proud of what he sees looking back at him.
For Plain Spoken, his 22nd studio album, John Mellencamp looks back, sometimes with brutal honesty, and writes with the realization that he is facing life alone. It would also seem he is aware his personal failings are a large part of why he is.
Opening with “Troubled Man,” Mellencamp sets the tone of the album. He lays it out in black & white terms:
“Anxiety and sorrow
Underneath my skin
Self destruction and failure
Have beat my head in”
While “Troubled Man” sees Mellencamp admitting to his faults, it isn’t until later in the album when we see the total cause and effect of the actions of his life.
In “Sometimes There’s God,” Mellencamp raises a basic truth for a lot of people. While there are times when it’s inconceivable that God, if he exists, could allow certain things to occur, there are also those moments when you look at a sunrise and cannot believe he doesn’t. Does having a belief in God create for you some kind of moral compass, or does it allow evil to spread, all in the name of God?
“The Isolation of Mister” is the tipping point of reflection on the album. It’s also the point where you need to decide if you feel pity for Mellencamp or disgust for a man who seemed it have it all and still found no satisfaction. The line “never made love with my heart in it,” is not only sorrowful, it’s hearbreaking to think about.
“In The Company Of Cowards” and “Tears In Vain” address another recurring theme on the album, the destruction of a relationship, in this case his marriage. “Company” revisits time and song in Key West with a similar feel to the music, while there’s a taste of “Human Wheels” in “Tears.” It’s as if Mellencamp uses the familiarity of those melodies to serve as a transition to the present and the breakup.
As is his norm, Mellencamp takes a turn or two at social commentary. “The Brass Ring,” “Freedom Of Speech,” and “Lawless Times” all reflect a point of view for life in today’s world, though “Brass Ring” is an interesting and different perspective of a woman’s life choices.
“Blue Charlotte” is a poignant look at a man saying a final goodbye to the love of his life. Remember the couple in “Pink Houses?” It’s not a far leap to think Charlotte could be the woman whose husband said “hey darlin’ I can remember when you could stop a clock.”
In “The Courtesy Of Kings,” Mellencamp gives one last kick to what was his marriage, though it ends with resignation and acceptance. Just as the album is almost at an end, perhaps it is time for him to move on from the bitterness and anger.
Mellencamp waits until the last song for the only realistic shot at tappin’ your feet. “Lawless Times” brings out some good time blues as Mellencamp sings about what’s wrong with the world we know. It’s catchy, fun and surprisingly upbeat.
Mellencamp took over producer reins for Plain Spoken, and from start to finish, it is seamless in its musical flow. However, most noticeable are the vocals. It’s almost as if all his hard living years have taken up residence in his vocal cords. But while his singing is rough, the songs are true Mellencamp, albeit stripped down to the basics. The guitar work is both interesting and pleasing overall. Subtle uses of the Hammond, harmonica and fiddle, create fine melodies though there are no obvious breakthrough hits. It is dark and at times, sad. It seems that Jack and Diane grew up and found out life wasn’t all “suckin’ on chili dogs.”
Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen have often been compared as two songwriters of the working class man. Bruce as the patron saint of the blue collar worker, John Mellencamp as the protector of the farmer. When Springsteen’s first marriage ended, he wrote the close to the bone Tunnel of Love, Mellencamp delivers Plain Spoken as the ending credits of his union.
What you get out of Plain Spoken depends on what you hope to find. A hard rockin’ declaration that life is worth living and fun times are surely ahead? No, you won’t find that. Instead what is offered is an introspective peek at a man’s life’s journey, written with candor and matter-of-fact-ness.
It’s an album which needs to be listened to, not just played casually. And while it may not make it into your regular rotation, it’s worthwhile and beautifully done. It’s hard to tell if John Mellencamp has come to terms with his past, we may just have to wait for his next album to find out.
Plain Spoken Track List:
All songs written by John Mellencamp.
“Troubled Man” – 4:14
“Sometimes There’s God” – 4:34
“The Isolation of Mister” – 5:35
“The Company of Cowards” – 3:52
“Tears In Vain” – 3:53
“The Brass Ring” – 5:37
“Freedom Of Speech” – 3:53
“Blue Charlotte” – 4:40
“The Courtesy of Kings” – 3:33
“Lawless Times” – 3:52