sun 23/07/2017

CD: John Mellencamp - Sad Clowns & Hillbillies | reviews, news & interviews

CD: John Mellencamp - Sad Clowns & Hillbillies

CD: John Mellencamp - Sad Clowns & Hillbillies

Fanfares for the common man

Mellencamp's songs chronicle the everyday joys and struggles of ordinary people
Roots rocker plays it like it is

The 23rd studio album from the artist formerly known as John Cougar was originally destined to be a religious album, but the songs he and Carlene Carter wrote turned out to be not quite so God-fearing as all that, though there’s certainly a discernible ol’ timey vibe, what with the pedal steel and fiddle and all. There’s a joyous setting of Woody Guthrie’s “My Soul’s Got Wings”, one of many previously unsung lyrics now archived in Tulsa, in which Guthrie dreams of a heaven “full of joy”. Angels abound, but the devil rears his head among the Sad Clowns & Hillbilllies.

Recorded in Indiana, John Mellencamp’s home state to which he remains umbilically attached, this is a compelling album from a justly celebrated roots rocker. There’s something about the picked guitar’s open tuning in “Mobile Blue”, the first track, that immediately draws you in, even before the fiddle, dobro and what sounds like a Hammond enter the mix. Sad Clowns features five duets with Carter, daughter of Johnny Cash, including “Indigo Sunset” which they co-wrote, and “Damascus”, a Carter opus. The two have often worked together: on the southern gothic musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County for which Stephen King wrote the book, and on the Meg Ryan movie Ithaca for which Mellencamp wrote the title song. More recently, Carter joined him on his Plain Spoken tour.

Mellencamp’s played with the greats, among them Dylan, Springsteen and Willie Nelson, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, at whose 90th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden he sang. Like them, his songs chronicle the everyday joys and struggles of ordinary people, a fanfare for the common man by a musician who's consistently stood up to be counted. “Easy Target”, which concludes the album, closed Mellencamp’s live sets as the US election drew to its disheartening conclusion. “Black lives matter/Who we tryin’ to kid?” he sings, “Easy target  a country’s broken heart”.

There are moments on Sad Clowns when Mellencamp sounds as you would imagine Tom Waits would if he cleared his throat. Elsewhere you could be listening to Kris Kristofferson, and there are moments of Springsteen and Dylan, enhanced by that Sixties-style Hammond and occasional harmonica. Yet he remains resolutely his own man, one whose voice “echoes the discontent that's out there in the heartland” as Billy Joel put it as he inducted him into the Rock‘n’Roll Hall of Fame back in 2008. 

@LizofMuesliHill

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters