Forty years ago, John Mellencamp (then John Cougar) told us to “hold out 16 as long as possible”. At Strictly a one-eyed Jackhe laments what happens when you no longer hold that hold.
The Indiana icon is no stranger to his stark face, of course – he dubbed himself the Little Bastard for production credits, after all, and a scowl was never too far from his face, even while rocking in the United States and beyond. At Strictly a one-eyed Jack, however, sweet 16 has turned 70 and looks at “a life full of rain, falling on my shoulders” with a thoughtful, gray-tinted gaze that doesn’t like what it sees but, above all, doesn’t regret or apologize. you to feel that. It’s there in headlines like “I’m a Worried Man” and “I Always Lie to Strangers,” and in ruminations about living in a world where “there’s so much crying, and it’s is all my eyes can see”.
It’s an understated, sobering dose of real-time reality delivered with the privacy of the porch. Mellencamp might want you to leave his lawn, but not before he’s had his say, in a gruff, cantankerous growl lined with plenty of miles — and plenty of cigarettes. With its austere instrumentation (mostly from members of his touring band) and the dominant slow and middle tempos, the 12-track set also finds Mellencamp deeply gripped by Americana, a genre he helped invent with albums 80s such as Scarecrow and The lonely jubilee. The touch of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and perhaps some Tom Waits accompanies each of the songs, sometimes more directly than others. The singer and his lyrics are front and center throughout, the melodies dressed in violin and double bass, accordion and field organ, with an occasional electric guitar.
Most of these come via Bruce Springsteen on three songs he co-wrote with Mellencamp for the album. Springsteen grabs the gossip-slamming “Did You Say Such a Thing” with a scathing solo straight out of his playbook, while “Wasted Days” nods to River‘s “Independence Day” as the duo reflect on mortality and how “we watch our lives fade away”. And the album’s close “A Life Full of Rain” ends with the gothic folk of the opener “I Always Lie to Strangers”, Springsteen’s guitar throwing out bits of light in the mood of the last call.
Mellencamp and company kick up some dust in “Lie to Me,” gritty, groovy rocker with a slight political undertone, and “Chasing Rainbows” touches on the band’s rootsy majesty. “Gone Too Soon” is as jazzy as we’ve ever heard Mellencamp, while “Sweet Honey Brown” stirs in some soul and “Simply a One-Eyed Jack” rolls and tumbles beyond its biblical and literary references. . Strictly a one-eyed Jack can feel like album of the year at times, but Mellencamp’s obscurity is mitigated by his heartfelt conviction – not least that he’s still here and still has his eye on the “dream of angel” he sings. And, to hell with despair, it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.
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