The approach John Mellencamp took for No Better Than This, his 21st studio album, sounds gimmicky: Traveling America with a vintage portable recorder, a single microphone, and a crew that included producer T-Bone Burnett and guitarist Marc Ribot, Mellencamp recorded at historic sites like Sun Studios, Savannah’s First African Baptist Church, and the San Antonio hotel where Robert Johnson cut some of his most famous sides. It’s as if Mellencamp expected any residual magic hanging around those locations to rub off on his own music. Thing is, he might have been onto something. The direct, spare No Better Than This—Mellencamp even eschews stereo—has a timeless sound and songs that do right by their classic blues, rock, and country inspirations.
The advantage of being a big star unburdened by any obligations to produce hits is that you can get away with making any sort of record you want. But while No Better Than This finds Mellencamp paying tribute to his influences, it’s also very much a Mellencamp album at heart, drawing inspiration and a little political fire from everyday hopes, dreams, and setbacks. “The West End” traces the decline of a neglected side of town, and the chugging “No One Cares About Me” comes from the perspective of one of life’s forgotten men. It isn’t all darkness, however: “Love At First Sight” imagines the course of potential love that realistically will be plagued by disappointment and disillusion, but might deserve a chance anyway, and a pair of poignant tracks, “Save Some Time To Dream” and “Clumsy Ol’ World,” bookend the set. Tracks like the latter, which weds an unaccompanied acoustic guitar to wistful reflections about the awkward way life and love work out, find Mellencamp not just aspiring to sound like the classics that made him love music, but matching them.