John Mellencamp plumbs mortality and regret in his new album
NEW YORK — There’s a brutal calculus that goes on in John Mellencamp’s mind these days. Time is not on his side, and he knows it.
“I am 70. I’ve been smoking since I was 14. If I make it to 80, I only have 10 summers left,” he says. “I have 10 empty pages to fill in if I’m lucky.”
That dark thought process — an honest reckoning, not a plea for anything — runs through his latest album, “Strictly a One-Eyed Jack,” a terrific 12-song roots-rock collection that explores aging, mortality and regret.
“How can a man watch his life go down the drain?/How many moments has he lost today?” the heartland rocker sings raspily on “Wasted Days,” one of three tunes featuring Bruce Springsteen.
Andy York, a frequent collaborator who provided acoustic and electric guitar, fretless bass, banjo, autoharp and his voice to the album, says few artists would begin a song with the line “How many summers still remain?” as Mellencamp does on “Wasted Days.”
“Not many people would sing a song starting with that line. But I think it’s important. It’s important to be sung because, ultimately, your takeaway from that song is you need to squeeze every bit of happiness and life out of every day and not waste days.”
It is Mellencamp’s 25th album — even he loses count, calling it is 27th at one point — and it’s filled with world-weary truths, like the opening song “I Always Lie to Strangers.”
“Don’t think that happened by accident,” he says with a raspy laugh. Mellencamp was inspired to write the song after finding out that the average person hears several hundred lies a day — and tells about 150 of their own.
“You’re watching television, you’re watching false advertising. You’re watching the news — I don’t care which side of the rope you swing on — you’re hearing lies,” he says. “If you go to church, you hear lies.”
Other songs include “Driving in the Rain,” a euphemism his grandfather used to warn a young Mellencamp when he was living dangerously, “Sweet Honey Brown,” a song about a life wasted by heroin and “Chasing Rainbows,” which is advice to recognize your blessings.
“If I laugh out loud once a day, I’ve had a good day,” the singer-songwriter says. “As you get older, you realize that you really don’t know much of anything. I know that sounds clichéd, but it’s true.”
“Strictly a One-Eyed Jack” — with a cover painted by one of his sons, Speck — may be a Mellencamp album, but he’s mysterious about where the songs come from. A voice in his head tells him to write them down, he says.
“They just are sent to me and I am an open vessel,” he says. “This album really is one guy speaking about himself and his life. And it ain’t me, but it’s observations and it’s gone through my filter.”
Many of the pool of 30 songs that were edited down to a dozen were written before the pandemic, but some were inspired by it, like “Driving in the Rain.” They come very quickly to him these days. Mellencamp, whose past hits include “Jack and Diane,” “Pink Houses” and “Hurts So Good,” doesn’t labor over songs like he used to.
“When I was younger, I used to try to control my songs,” he says. “I don’t do that much anymore. I just let the song go where it wants to go and say what it wants to say.”
Lyrics come first generally and he jots them down with paper and pen. Sometimes he is stunned by what comes out: “To be real honest with you, some of these lyrics are so much smarter than me.”
“I think it’s just because I’m open. You know what I mean? When I was a kid, I wasn’t open. But now, as an old man, I am,” he adds. “I know that sounds like hocus pocus, but it’s true. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. I’m strictly just a vessel.”
Monte Lipman, founder and CEO of Republic Records, considers it one of Mellencamp’s best albums: “His undeniable gift of storytelling and poetic narratives has never been more prolific. This is an incredibly powerful body of work.”
The album and title song are named after playing cards. Both the jack of spades and jack of hearts are facing sideways and are nicknamed one-eyed jacks since only one eye is visible. Mellencamp notes that they have swords behind their backs and calls them the most dangerous cards in the deck. They act as metaphors for the way we are.
“We only show what we want people to see, and we really never get to know anybody because not only are we doing that, everybody’s playing that game,” he says. “So the bottom line is that we go through this life that we don’t really know anybody, do we?”
It’s a bleak assessment from a songwriter who has never pulled his punches. After all, one of his hits a lifetime ago goes “Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.”
The album ends with a sonic gut-punch — the cinematic “A Life Full of Rain,” in which Mellencamp sings: “Here in a room where no one cares/I’m not wanted here/I got no place to go/I’ve found all is empty/In a life full of rain.”
York, who also says he thinks the new album is one of Mellencamp’s best, adds that each song is almost like a minifilm capturing a real life gone wrong.
“I look at it as a man in his journey of life, looking back on everything that he’s done, and the status of the world as it is now and just kind of shining a light on it, warts and all.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits