April 27, 2017 John Mellencamp – Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (Album Review)
No, John Mellencamp was never a horny old lady, but he was a Cougar back in the ’80s! All joking aside, Mellencamp is a true American storyteller and the rebel with a cause is set to make his triumphant return on Friday, April 28, 2017 with his 23rd overall studio album, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, via Republic Records.
A true-blue American Singer-Songwriter, Mellencamp is probably best known for his work in the 1980s, such as the classic Folk Rock, radio-friendly mega-hits “Small Town,” “Hurts So Good,” “Jack & Diane,” and “Cherry Bomb,” among many, many countless others. Many of Mellencamp’s best and brightest tracks appealed to small town America, bringing many to associate his name with the Heartland and Americana. In fact, Mellencamp – along with some guys named Willie Nelson and Neil Young – founded Farm Aid, an organization that seeks to aid farm families and save the American farmlands.
Mellencamp has amassed some 20+ Top 40 hits over the past forty-some years, and reportedly holds the record for the most tracks by a solo artist to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. He has been nominated for 13 Grammy Awards and has twenty-two albums to his credit.
As if this was not enough, Mellencamp was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2008 by friend Billy Joel. Which just goes to show that when the legendary Johnny Cash reportedly refers to you as “one of the best songwriters in music,” you might be doing a few things right. In fact, Mellencamp is not just a world-renowned musician, but also an accomplished painter, actor, co-creator of a musical, and possesses an honorary Doctorate of Musical Arts from Indiana University. There is truly nothing that this man cannot do with impressive ease!
Mellencamp and Country Singer-Songwriter Carlene Carter are no strangers to one another: the pair have worked on Mellencamp and Stephen King’s Southern Gothic Musical project Ghost Brothers of Darkland County together, as well as the film score for the Meg Ryan film Ithaca. Carter, the stepdaughter of the legendary Johnny Cash, recently opened for Mellencamp on his 2015-2016 Plain Spoken Tour. Together, the two have joined their magnificent forces to bring Mellencamp’s twenty-third studio album to life – a collection that contains quite a few duets between the Hall of Famer and Carter.
The album begins with “Mobile Blue,” a perfectly Southern, down-home Folk Rock jam tribute to Mobile, Alabama that is capped off with the beautiful background vocal work of Carter. We quickly learn that experience and time have added a layer of grit to Mellencamp’s convivial vocals, “Battle of Angels” to epic heights; an overall beautifully relaxing, cinematic track that evokes images of travels toward Los Angeles via the endless Western deserts. Mellencamp is known of his ode to the simple life and “Grandview” is no different: here his childhood self dreams of purchasing a brand new trailer and moving down to the town of the title. The exceptional Country crooner Martina McBride has a much, ahem, grander view and guest stars in this dirty Southern groover that is the album’s second single and first video. It rolls flawlessly into the picturesque, postcard love that encompasses “Indigo Sunset,” the album’s extraordinary first proper duet between Mellencamp and Carter.
“What Kind of Man Am I” possesses a somber vibe from our beloved storyteller and pairs beautifully with the album’s closer, “Easy Target.” Both of a serious, questioning vibe and a somewhat similar introduction. Carter takes the reins for the down home, Folk Country jamboree of “Sugar Hill Mountain,” which segues perfectly into the lovely duet “You Are Blind,” a track about being blinded by love. Carter then returns to lead on the gritty tale of “Damascus Road.”
“I don’t wait on women, I don’t open doors; not much of a gentleman,” Mellencamp muses in “Sad Clowns,” where he light-heartedly warns: “Hey girlie, you better think again” about chasing after someone like him. In fact, if you’re snapping selfies and self-aggrandizing all over Instagram, Mr. Mellencamp wishes for you to know that you are one sad, sad clown, baby. It is a light-hearted track that clears the way for the deeper soul of its follower, the uptempo Gospel meets Folk roots of “My Soul’s Got Wings,” a beautifully upbeat piece that contains lyrics written by one of Mellencamp’s major influences, Folk Rock legend Woody Guthrie. The album comes to a close with a melancholy tribute to a “country’s broken heart” at the dawn of the most recent presidential inauguration, the political tear-jerker “Easy Target.” It is, admittedly, a heavy, heavy weight to end an album with and yet, much as everything Mellencamp does, it is perfect.
When it comes to a John Mellencamp album, there is simply no critiquing the musicianship. As with the entirety of this man’s extensive oeuvre of work, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies is no different: every note is pitch perfect, every melody beautifully executed. You do not get to perform with someone like Mr. Mellencamp unless you are at the upper echelon of your craft and the end product proves this without a doubt. Sad Clowns & Hillbillies is a triumph for the rebellious, modern storyteller, a perfect homage to the craft of Folk Rock always with extensive influences and eclectic sounds interwoven to create a flawless end product. Mr. Mellencamp is incomparable at his craft, and Ms. Carter is right on par with our hero; together the two are unstoppable. For these reasons and so very many more, CrypticRock gives Sad Clowns & Hillbillies 5 of 5 stars.