December 4, 2018 John Mellencamp – Other People’s Stuff (Album Review)
A true storyteller who continually contributes new insights to the Americana zeitgeist, John Mellencamp is poised to deliver a brand-new anthology, the wonderfully-titled Other People’s Stuff, Friday, December 7, 2018, via Republic Records.
A true-blue American Singer-Songwriter, Mellencamp is probably best known for his radio-smashing work in the ‘80s, such as the classic, radio-friendly mega-hits “Small Town,” “Hurts So Good,” “Jack & Diane,” and “Cherry Bomb,” among many, many countless others. In total, he has amassed some 20+ Top 40 hits over the past forty-odd years, been nominated for 13 Grammy Awards, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2008 by friend Billy Joel. Furthermore, as one of the creators of Farm Aid, along with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, Mellencamp has taken what he is known for – painting musical pictures of small-town America – and put his money where his mouth is to support farm families in an effort to save the American farmlands. My friends, it has not been a bad little career!
For Other People’s Stuff, Mellencamp ventures into compilation territory, bringing together 10 tracks that have not previously appeared alongside one another. Some come from studio albums, while others are rarities that initially appeared on tribute albums, Documentaries or, in one instance, was first performed at The White House for President Barack Obama. While the majority of the tracks appear to be remastered and remixed for inclusion, a few are identical to their originals – and most of them are actually not, ahem, other people’s stuff.
To prove this fact, Other People’s Stuff opens with “To The River,” which is most definitely a piece of Mr. Mellencamp’s own personal ‘baggage.’ If you have ever wondered what any of Human Wheels would sound like updated for 2018, well, behold “To The River,” which originally appeared on the 1993 album. Here, the track appears to be remastered and remixed, allowing the band and their instrumentation to shine in bolder, melodic glory, all while highlighting Mellencamp’s stellar storytelling and kicking off this compilation with a warm kiss of nostalgia.
You would never know that “Gambling Bar Room Blues” is not an original Mellencamp offering thanks to this smoky, bluesy retelling of the 1932 Jimmie Rodgers’ classic. Next, fiddle opens the bittersweet jam of “Teardrops Will Fall,” originally from 2003’s Trouble No More. Here, a warm, upbeat caress of sound belies the lyrical confessions of heartbroken sadness. If you’re a fan, you already know the track – and will love this remastered version, which is a subtle and respectful update to an already wonderfully-authored classic.
He goes funky for the folksy percussion of “In My Time of Dying,” which originally appeared on 1997’s Rough Harvest. With Mellencamp’s vocals lower in the mix here, the band are allowed to shine – from the phenomenal percussion that anchors the entire track to the sweeping melodies of the fiddle. This flows perfectly into a more recent original reference, “Mobile Blue,” which represents Sad Clowns & Hillbillies. There’s no retelling here: this is the version of the song that appears on the 2017 collection – and that’s okay. It was great then and it’s just as great a year later, a sultry stroll through Mellencamp’s gritty, yet soulful American storytelling.
In a world that seemingly looks to muddy every new musical composition with ridiculous effects, Mellencamp stays fully true to his minimalist vision on the powerful “Eyes on the Prize,” the collection’s first video/single. Originally performed at The White House in 2010, consider this a protest song, one that looks to make bold statements through its simplicity. Think about it and check out the video, which explores timely, hot button issues.
That signature gritty storytelling encompasses “Dark As A Dungeon,” which originally appeared in the 2017 National Geographic Channel Documentary From the Ashes. A true glance at Americana, the song mirrors the Documentary, which explores the legacy of America’s coal-mining industry. Not another entry into the “war on coal,” both “Dark As A Dungeon” and From the Ashes look toward the humanity of the situation and not the environmental implications.
To seek a respite from this emotional heft, Mellencamp and his gang go funky for the toe-tappin’ “Stones in My Passway,” which originally appeared on 2003’s Trouble No More. Then, this is followed by the lament of “Wreck of the Old 97,” a classic Folk song, one which Mellencamp initially recorded for 2004’s compilation of Folk ballads, The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad.
Stretching his wings and going slightly left of center, Mellencamp ends with a 1968 classic Stevie Wonder hit, “I Don’t Know Why I Love You.” The raw confessional is perfectly-suited to Mellencamp’s gritty stomp, placing his own spin onto the track while maintaining a smoother vocal performance and echoing the sultry smoothness of the great Wonder himself. It closes the collection out with a bang, capping off an album that is truly an anthology of now unburied treasures.
Despite the nature of the anthology, Other People’s Stuff is cohesive; these are songs that fit one another perfectly, all individual pieces of the great American songbook belonging to Mr. Mellencamp. The brilliance here is in how well each track fits the others and in how flawlessly Other People’s Stuff fits into the recent Mellencamp oeuvre – this could easily be the follow-up to 2017’s Sad Clowns & Hillbillies.
Okay, so, in a sense, it is exactly that, but as an anthology that includes several covers, Other People’s Stuff rises above the typical compilation package that blindly mashes material together to try and buy an artist some time while keeping their name fresh. Mellencamp doesn’t need to buy himself anything – he is a known, beloved, as well as treasured commodity, and clearly there’s a reason for that. Enjoying rummaging through Other People’s Stuff, Cryptic Rock give John Mellencamp’s latest 5 of 5 stars.