8-note review: John Mellencamp’s Strictly A One-Eyed Jack

I barely resisted the temptation to go with a one-sentence review:

Nothing matters and what if it did?

John Mellencamp has said that Strictly A One-Eyed Jack reflects a number of songs about (or more accurately, from) one particular character. “Dour” may not quite be the right word … maybe “dyspeptic”? … but disappointment and the netherland between skepticism and cynicism get a lot of air time.

2) The three songs featuring Bruce Springsteen are possibly the three most downcast on the entire record. Don’t look to the Boss for uplift here. Despite the artist’s claim that there’s a carpe diem kind of message in there, “Wasted Days” may make you want to you waste the rest of them. Later, the closing “A Life Full Of Rain” – well, the title tells you where that one’s going, doesn’t it?

Sidemen and Side Trips

3) Mike Wanchic. Speaking of Nothing Matters And What If It Did, the guitarist was already a regular in the lineup when “John Cougar” made that record 42 years ago. Mellencamp would surely agree that time eventually tends to screw everything up one way or another, so it’s really nice to see Wanchic still doing his thing here.

4) Late-night jazz break. “Gone So Soon” gives listeners a break from downcast worldview with a pretty, piano-led if melancholy few minutes. Really nice sequence and passing chords from Troye Kinnett.

5) “Sweet Honey Brown” is a great example of a song that wouldn’t be a single but raises the quality of the album. Bass and drums start off to make the hips sway. Violin and vocals double the opening riff. Organ and electric guitar open up further into the track. A highlight.

6) One about-face. “Chasing Rainbows” either breaks character or catches the dominant character on an especially good day. Mellencamp sings that while people will tell you that “this world is full of fancy dreams that can’t get you anything, that’s not really true …” In fact, the end of the rainbow “is everywhere for anyone who cares.”

The sentiment is jarring next to several of the other songs. Melodically, it might sound a little stilted compared to the others. But it works as a welcome change of tone, even if the above two tracks might better tracks.

Portrait of the artist from a young man

7) He contains multitudes. “I Am A Man That Worries” could be a decent poster boy for the attitudes that coexist in the spirit of this project. With a quicker step, it features that classic Mellencamp violin plus dobro, and this line: “I’d like to say I’m sorry / I’d like to say Amen / I’d like to say don’t look at me / I ain’t telling you again …”

The album has its moments, but if you haven’t actually bought a Mellencamp album in a few years (or more), his live Plain Spoken From The Chicago Theatre release is great and might provide a better mix of old and new to get you warmed up.

8) The artists Mellencamp. If you’re like me, you might have seen the painting on the cover and assume that Mellencamp painted it. Well, the painter was a Mellencamp, but it was his son, Speck. Surely a proud dad moment.


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