If ever there were a prototypical John Mellencamp title, it's Plain Spoken. Mellencamp has long striven for direct, forthright communication, so the title suits his overall aesthetic as well as this album in specific. His first album underneath a "lifetime" recording contract for Republic Records -- a deal that effectively amounts to his return to the Universal group -- this is also his first record since 2007's Freedom's Road not to be produced by T-Bone Burnett, but that titan of Americana has certainly left an imprint on the singer/songwriter. Like many Burnett productions, this trades in hushed authentic acoustica, but where Burnett often indulges aural impressionism -- or, in the case of 2010's No Better Than This, such quasi-stunts as mono mixes -- Mellencamp opts to revert to a streamlined version of the wide-ranging Heartland Rock of The Lonesome Jubilee. There are echoes of this 1987 masterwork on Plain Spoken but only in the sense that's where Mellencamp first delved into acoustic folk and country. Twenty seven years later, he's an older man in every sense: his voice sounds ravaged by cigarettes, he doesn't bother rocking at all (although he does play a bit of blues on "Lawless Times," a subdued shuffle that offers a welcome tonal tonic at the close), and he feels battered down by the passage of time. He's mourning the end of his marriage, he's pondering mortality, he's sour at the politicians and the bankers, and he's not so sure he has much to offer anybody else, either. If his bitterness is unavoidable in the lyrics or in his voice, his music softens his bite, turning these tunes into melancholy laments instead of invective, so there winds up being a bit of a needed cushion to Mellencamp's straight talk on Plain Spoken.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine