Review: John Mellencamp's New Album, Plain Spoken

The record hits stores on September 23.
It has been a rough few years for the guy who once called himself (albeit ironically) “Mr. Happy Go Lucky.” After his 2011 divorce from wife Elaine Irwin, John Mellencamp must have felt very alone in his mansion near Bloomington, especially with his sons Hud and Speck (who’ve been in some recent legal trouble) now at college. In an interview with Rolling Stone from December 2013, Mellencamp expressed this loneliness, saying, “I used to walk into my house and I could always go, ‘Who loves their dad?’ And throughout the house I’d hear Elaine go, ‘I do!’ Then I heard Hud go,  ‘I do!’ and then Speck,  ‘I do!’ It was this greeting that I always had. I walk in now sometimes and go, ‘Who loves their dad?’ Nothin’.”
As usual, however, the songwriter has channeled that loneliness into some great music. On September 23, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer will release Plain Spoken, marking his 22nd full-length album and his first release with New York–based Republic Records (Jack Johnson, Lorde), which signed Mellencamp to an impressive “lifetime” recording contract earlier this year. In support of the album, he has also announced an extensive 80-date tour for 2015, which includes dates in South Bend, Bloomington (for two nights), Evansville, Fort Wayne, and Indianapolis.
With his previous two albums—2008’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom and 2010’s No Better Than This—Mellencamp teamed up with producer T Bone Burnett (who has worked with the likes of Roy Orbison and Lisa Marie Presley), resulting in a pair of records overflowing with traditional folk and country blues. Despite his pleasant experiences with Burnett, Mellencamp chose to self-produce his latest album, resulting in a return to his Americana roots.
Every bit as solemn in mood as his previous two albums, Plain Spoken is filled with themes of bitterness and despondency. This is clear before you ever listen to the songs. Track titles include “Troubled Man,” “Tears in Vain,” and “The Isolation of Mister.” In that last one, he sings, “Been so indifferent about so many things, about my time and my rage / I thought I was living a life of freedom, but I was living in a cage.” And after the sobering back-and-forth conversation that Mellencamp relays to the listener during “The Brass Ring,” he eventually concludes, “This world I’ve seen here is never fair, so just leave me here with my sorrow.” Even in his more politically driven tunes like “The Company of Cowards” and “Lawless Times,” restlessness reigns supreme.
Dour as it is, Plain Spoken does mark an exciting new chapter for Mellencamp with Republic Records, and is well worth a listen.