John Mellencamp's music has captured the moods of several eras — and at the start of 2022, his new album dwells on loneliness and lying.
The songs on Strictly a One-eyed Jack are narrated by a character whose soul seems as battered as Mellencamp's cigarette-darkened voice. When we spoke this week, he said the lyrics distill something he's learned across 70 years of life. "What I've discovered at my ancient age is that we are all in solitary confinement inside our own skins, and we don't really get to know anybody."
He was paraphrasing a line from a play by Tennessee Williams, another student of American tragedy and longing. But having borrowed the words, the singer made the thought his own. Three divorces and decades of fame have led him to the conclusion that all of us hide our true selves from other people — that each of us is alone. The first line of the first song on the album is: "I always lie to strangers."
"I don't see it as dark at all," he said. "I just see it as looking for the truth of life." If you disagree, that's all right with him: "I'm not for everybody."
There was a time when it seemed that he was for everybody, or at least that everybody knew his name. I rarely bought a Mellencamp album when I was growing up in his native Indiana, but I didn't have to. He was on the radio constantly in the 1980's, and I mean constantly — replays only partly driven by state pride. His concert tours filled football stadiums across the country. He'd started out with a stage name, John Cougar, but before long had the power to drop the name and become himself.
His early hits drew listeners into stories. "Ain't Even Done With the Night" is the tale of a young man who doesn't know how to behave on a date. "Jack and Diane" tells of a young couple's teenage romance — but the narrator knows where the story is headed. "Life goes on / long after the thrill of living is gone."
Like his contemporary Bruce Springsteen, his observations could be political. "Rain on the Scarecrow" describes the 1980's economy that drove small farmers off their land. "Pink Houses" comments on twentieth-century urban renewal: a Black man has an "interstate running through his front yard." Many cities routed highways through Black neighborhoods without much regard for the people in them. "Pink Houses" is also just an awesome song, filled with such exuberance that you can almost miss the outrage.
His later songs also captured something of their times. In the boom years of the 1990's, he urged people to seize the day — "Your Life is Now." In the hard times of the Great Recession he advised listeners to "save some time to dream, 'cause your dreams can save us all."
Yet on that 2010 album, one character fallen on hard times declares "I'm sick of life," and adds, "It's not a graceful fall from dreams to the truth." Strictly a One-eyed Jack continues that fall toward one particular truth — Mellencamp's awareness of lies.
"They lied to us in the churches. They lied to us in the schools. The government's always lying to us," he said, speaking from his home in Bloomington, Ind. He said people lie to those they love, too.
"During those moments of crisis in a relationship, the person that you're involved with, who you thought you knew, always surprises you. It's been that way with everything that I've done. The people at the record company would always surprise me. The audience would always surprise me. I was always surprised. I thought I knew what was going on. But as I got older, I found out that I don't have a clue what the f***'s going on. And I think that none of us do ... We don't really get to know anybody in the world except ourselves, and we don't even know ourselves."
On the album he sings that he is "a man that worries" and "a man of low degree," but adds that "the world is run by men much more crooked than me."
Mellencamp sings in a raspy voice altered by decades of smoking, which he insists he prefers. "I wrote a song once a long, long, long, long time ago called 'I Just Want to Be Black.' I grew up singing in soul bands," he said. He'd like to sound like Louis Armstrong, and here and there perhaps he does. He has no plan to quit smoking even though "it will surely kill me." His breathing was audible in our interview.
He's probably right that the album is "not for everybody." But the tight musicianship and sharply cut lyrics do reflect these disillusioned and distrustful times. He may also send listeners back along the arc of his story, to the music of past times, when his darkness was always present but the optimism lived too. And he wasn't even done with the night.
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