The first thing that grabs the listener about John Mellencamp's No Better Than This is its sound: mono -- recorded live to an Ampex 601 tape recorder circa 1955, with a single microphone without mixing or overdubs. It's warmth and presence are immediate and engulfing. Mellencamp and T-Bone Burnett cut the album while on tour supporting, Life Death Love and Freedom, Mellencamp's celebrated precursor. This album was cut in some very famous locales: First African Baptist Church in Savannah, GA (the first African American Christian church in North America), Sun Studios in Memphis, and in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX, where Robert Johnson recorded "Stones in My Passway" in 1936. While Mellencamp's last album was celebrated for its wonderfully crafted songs, it nonetheless reflected Burnett's dictatorially heavy-handed production style. This set feels far more like the artist. The songs are rooted in country, rockabilly, folk, country-gospel, and an even rawer Midwestern rock--Mellencamp's brand. The band is equal parts his standard road group and Burnett's studio crew, but the latter plays more of a supporting role than a guiding one; this set, with its brilliantly pruned songwriting, is Mellencamp at his focused best.
The album's opener, "Save Some Time to Dream," is from the older, wiser songwriter who gave us "We Are the People," "Jackie Brown," "Human Wheels," and is a skeletal part two of "Your Life Is Now." These historic locales reflect the tunes somewhat -- especially the driving title track, "Coming Down the Road," and "Each Day of Sorrow" that come from, respectively, the rockabilly of Carl Perkins, early Elvis, and Johnny Burnette. "No One Cares About Me" is a pure Mellencamp lyric, but its sound is reminiscent of the Sun-era Johnny Cash. The spooky banjo of the minor-key blues that makes up "The West End" touches on the folk-blues Bob Dylan utilized on "The Ballad of Hollis Brown." "A Graceful Fall" is electric hillbilly blues. "Love at First Sight," with Mellencamp accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, is among the finest love songs he's ever written. "Don't Forget About Me" is a country ballad that acts as its mirror image and resonates deeply. He may be looking back at some earlier styles of music that influenced him, but these songs feel invigorated, unfettered; melodically and lyrically astute. He possesses an independent streak in abundance; he is making music only for himself now; as a result, he's in a league of his own. No Better Than This proves that good songs need very little to communicate instructive narratives and complex emotions, and that primitive recording methods are still sometimes the best ones. [The album is also available on vinyl.]