Through much of its history, rock & roll has walked hand in hand with youth culture, and most major artists have seemed wary of advancing age. Conventional wisdom has it that the greatest compliment you can pay a veteran musician is that they sure don't look or sound as old as they actually are, and that they still appear young at heart. Through much of his career, John Mellencamp has seemed ambivalent about rock stardom, so it makes a certain sense that from 2010's No Better Than This onward, he's been content to let his music reflect his time served on the planet. These days, he leans more to folk than the heartland rock that made him famous, and his vocals are steeped in audible grit caused by many years of smoking and even more time shouting out his songs. 2022's Strictly a One-Eyed Jack was released when Mellencamp was 70 years of age, and he seems proud to be something of a relic, a bit cranky and worn but with plenty to say and no shyness about sharing his thoughts. He casts himself as a cynic and a rogue in many of these songs, one with a certain charm and a plentiful amount of swagger, and his rasp more than suits the character, complementing the mournful, jazzy tone of "Gone Too Soon," the bitter cynicism of "I Always Lie to Strangers," and the fatalistic caution of "Streets of Galilee." Mellencamp can still rock when he feels like it, though his attack is lean and sharp like a razor, aiming to cut rather than pummel. One of the major selling points of Strictly a One-Eyed Jack is the appearance of Bruce Springsteen on three songs, and while Springsteen is two years older, the grand irony is he brings a more youthful energy to his tracks with his incisive guitar work and vocals that show the passage of time while befitting the mind of a man determined to make the most of every day he has left. The rueful "Wasted Days," the album's first single, feels like a look at one of the characters from The Lonesome Jubilee 35 years down the road, and Mellencamp and Springsteen make the most of its sadness and introspection. However, the real winner is "Did You Say Such a Thing," where Springsteen's wiry guitar and sly backing vocals goad Mellencamp into a cockiness that bridges the gap between the Enlightened Grouch and the Artist Formerly Known as Johnny Cougar. More than most musicians of his commercial stature, John Mellencamp embodies the stubborn independence of an artist who unquestioningly follows his heart and his muse, and Strictly a One-Eyed Jack is the work of a man accepting the passage of time rather than fighting against it. As a songwriter and a performer, it's a gambit that works in his favor.
Strictly a One-Eyed Jack
Strictly a One-Eyed Jack Review
by Mark Deming