Graded on a Curve:
John Mellencamp, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack

Celebrating John Mellencamp on his 71st birthday.Ed.

John Mellencamp has been a curmudgeon his entire life. On 1982’s “Jack and Diane” he sang, “Oh yeah life goes on, long after the thrill of livin’ has gone.” That was back in 1982, and his bleak take on human existence hasn’t changed over the ensuing years. On his latest LP, 2022’s Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, Mellencamp is downright fatalistic—you take the hand life has dealt you, and likely as not there isn’t a single high card in it.

Mellencamp’s voice has grown into his material over the years; a heavy smoker, he sings with a grizzled rasp every bit as wizened as his face on the front cover of Strictly a One-Eyed Jack. His has become the voice of an aging man whose philosophy can be summed up as lower your expectations, kid, and still expect to come up short.

On Strictly a One-Eyed Jack the former John Cougar reveals himself to be a world class misanthrope. On the downcast opening track “I Always Lie to Strangers,” Mellencamp sings in a voice like gravel, “This world is run by men/Much more crooked than mе/And as far as I can see/I don’t trust you/And you shouldn’t trust me.” On “Streets of Galilee” he offers up some sage relationship advice: “Well I don’t grovel and I don’t pander/Give a fuck what you say/I don’t need you, you don’t need me/I think we both should disappear.” These are hardly the words of man growing old gracefully.

On rocker “Lie to Me” Mellencamp works the same vein, singing “Lie to me/Lord knows I’m used to it/So lie to me/You know I don’t really care/I never took to much trouble/With the truth myself” before turning to the 70-year-old musician’s main preoccupation, approaching mortality: ”As the days become a little bit shorter,” he sings, “and our time here is almost gone/You can lie to me.”

Approaching death is also the subject of album highlight “Wasted Days,” on which Mellencamp is joined by Bruce Springsteen. The song’s melody is poignant, its subject matter is self-explanatory, and the two men sound both resigned and wistful as they sing the final verse: “How can a man watch his life go down the drain?/How many moments has hе lost today?/And who among us could ever see clear?/Thе end is coming, it’s almost here.”

On the old-time bluesy “I Am a Man That Worries” Mellencamp tells us that a man who worries is hardly the kind of fella that sits around and frets—“Look out for a man that worries/Step aside when I set your way/’Cause I’m a man that’s worried/You better get out of my way, boy/You better get out of my way.”

Springsteen provides backing vocals on the old school Mellencamp rocker “Did You Say Such a Thing,” which is addressed to somebody who’s been talking smack about him in public. On one hand he sings, “What people say about me don’t matter much,” but on the other he sounds pretty darn peeved: “You say you keep the secret/It’s just the people that you tell/Well, here’s a little secret/You can go straight to hell.”

Accordion and piano set the mood on the slow and melancholy “A Life Full of Rain,” It treads a well-worn path; you didn’t ask to be here but here you are, left to live “A life full of rain/And the forecast is severe.” The romantic “Gone So Soon” has a slow, cocktail jazz feel to it, and is suffused with melancholia; Joey Tartell’s trumpet helps set the mood, as do Troye Kinnett’s piano and the backing vocals of violinist Miriam Sturm.

“Driving in the Rain” is a bittersweet look backwards to a time “When I was young/Responsibilities were none/When I did wrong it was fun.” But in the end he sees an uncharacteristic light in the encroaching darkness: “And the days scurry by so fast/I finally see myself and laugh/Noticing the change/Of driving in the rain.” The slinky “Sweet Honey Brown” is a disillusioned song about show biz that boasts some nice violin and an exotic rhythm, and comes complete with some of my favorite opening lines ever: “The show is over/And the monkey is dead/Turn that music down/Put that cold rag on my head.”

The title track owes a debt to Bob Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” The subject of both songs is gambling; both proceeds at a brisk clip that leave no place for choruses. And like Dylan does so often, Mellencamp tosses in a biblical figure in the form of John the Baptist. Meanwhile the Gypsy King is dealing from the bottom of the deck but he’s losing just like everyone else; they’re all looking for that one-eyed Jack and they’re never going to find it.

Which leaves us with “Chasing Rainbows,” which may well be the worst song Mellencamp has ever recorded. If you’re expecting an interesting twist on the cliched phrase you won’t find it, and the female backing vocalists turn the song into a maudlin affair. And its optimistic message (“At the end of the rainbow/Turns out it’s not somewhere/Look around, it’s everywhere/For anyone who cares”) sounds a false note coming out of Mellencamp’s mouth.

John Mellencamp hasn’t been disabused by life; he seems to have been born that way. Unlike his contemporary Bruce Springsteen there’s no rousing uplift in his songs, nor is there any of the lurid subject matter preferred by many of the musical artists who share his dark vision of life—you’ll look in vain for songs about murder, suicide and madness. He’s just an ordinary guy who figured out early on that life is a game of three-card monte. And we’re all playing with a loaded deck as the dark clouds of mortality gather in the distance.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text