There’s a line in the Old Testament Book Of Ruth - “and as it happened”. It sounds like a a throw away linking phrase but holds a weighty theology of providence. Serendipity they now call it.
And as it happened I ordered a friend the biography of John Mellencamp for Christmas. I then got so intrigued by it that I ordered it for myself.
The New Testament describes John The Baptist as someone who paved the way for Jesus. He came to make the paths straight, get us ready for the Christ.
Paul Rees’ biography did something like that, preparing me for the arrival of John Mellencamp’s 24th studio record. I had lost Mellencamp along the way and missed the revival of his essentiality these last fifteen years.
When Mellencamp threw off the shackles of the demand for radio relevance, hit singles and big sales he discovered his muse, his reason to be an artist. T-Bone Burnett helped as producer and near pastor, working on Life, Death, Love and Freedom and Better Than This, and John Mellencamp has turned 70 making one of the best albums of his life.
Strictly A One-Eyed Jack grabs your throat in the tenderest of ways a few seconds in and refuses to let you go. It reeks of maturity like a long long oak barrelled whiskey. It reminds me a lot of Dylan’s Oh Mercy.
Mellencamp has been blessed. For many other singers such excessive smoking might have wrecked the voice. Instead Mellencamp has been given a new expressive instrument. His voice is now deep and ragged somewhere between Heart of Saturday Night Tom Waits and Mad Dogs and Englishmen Joe Cocker.
Though at times he sounds ageing, this record comes across as musically vivid and vital. The playing is uncluttered but precise like the painter that Mellencamp has becomes over these last thirty years.
I Am A Man That Worries is straight out of the Woody Guthrie legacy, protesty and campfire loose. And, when he is not trying, Say Did You Say Such a Thing could be a monster of a hit, so darn catchy and Springsteen on for good measure. The New Jersey Boss is on 3 tracks. Wasted Days could be on either’s record. It also gives us clarity to Mellencamp’s mind:
How many summers still remain?
How many days are lost in vain?
Who’s counting out these last dramatic years?
How many minutes do we have here?
The more rocking Lie To Me also talks about the shortening of time on this earth. Gone So Soon starts all crooners piano and end up as if it is lifted straight off an early Waits record. A poignant and beautiful piece of heartache.
So, Strictly A One Eyed Jack is certainly one of the elders sharing how it is at the other end of life from Jack and Diane. It is personal. Eking out what is left. Missing those already gone. It is also littered with lies and seems to be implying there are liars afoot. Read that how you will!
The closing A Life Full of Rain lacks a little in hope, hope that has always appeared across recent Mellencamp records but even after its sombre close I am thinking that I hope that this guy has time for another few records yet. I wasn’t thinking that back in November!