John Mellencamp, ‘Strictly a One-Eyed Jack': Album Review
Forty years ago, John Mellencamp (then John Cougar) told us to "hold onto 16 as long as you can." On Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, he laments what happens when you no longer maintain that grip.
The Indiana icon is no stranger to dour countenance, of course - he famously dubbed himself the Little Bastard for production credits, after all, and a scowl has never been too far from his face even when he was rockin' in the U.S.A. and beyond. On Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, however, sweet 16 has turned 70 and is looking at "a life full of rain, coming down on my shoulders" with a reflective, gray-tinged gaze that doesn't like what he sees but, importantly, doesn't regret or apologize for feeling that way. It's there in titles such as "I Am a Man Who Worries" and "I Always Lie to Strangers," and in ruminations about living in a world where "there's so many crying, and that's all my eyes can see."
It's a sober and sobering dose of real-time reality delivered with front-porch intimacy. Mellencamp may want you to get off his lawn, but not before he's said his piece, in a gruff, sandpapery growl lined with a lot of miles - and a lot of cigarettes. With its austere instrumentation (mostly from members of his touring band) and the prevailing slow and mid-tempos, the 12-track set also finds Mellencamp deeply gripped in Americana, a genre he helped coin with '80s albums such as Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee. The touch of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and maybe 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 up with violin and upright bass, accordion and field organ, with electric guitar sprinkled in only occasionally.
Most of the latter comes via Bruce Springsteen on three songs he co-wrote with Mellencamp for the album. Springsteen sears the gossip-slamming "Did You Say Such a Thing" with a stinging solo straight out of his playbook, while "Wasted Days" nods to The River's "Independence Day" as the duo muses over mortality and how "we watch our lives just fade away." And the album-closing "A Life Full of Rain" bookends with the gothic folk of the opener "I Always Lie to Strangers," Springsteen's guitar lacing bits of light into the last-call ambience.
Mellencamp and company do kick up a little dust in "Lie to Me," a grooving and gritty rocker with a slight political undertone, and "Chasing Rainbows" touches on the rootsy majesty of the Band. "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 past its biblical and literary references. Strictly a One-Eyed Jack may at times seem like the feel-bad album of the year, but Mellencamp's murk is mitigated in his earnest conviction - and not the least in the fact that he's still here and still has an eye on the "angel's dream" he sings about. And, despair be damned, it doesn't sound like he's going away any time soon.