A Life Full Of Rain
Let’s start with the dark. John Mellencamp’s Strictly a One-Eyed Jack (21 January, 2022; Republic Records) is a thematically bleak record that closes with a song on which the protagonist curses his mother for bringing him into this world.
The protagonist in this case is not Mellencamp, nor his alter-ego Johnny Cougar, but One-Eyed Jack, who is a grizzled old man with an eye-patch, looking back on a wild life of grief and broken promises. But here the remaining eye sees that he has also been responsible for a good part of the mess, as he sings “I always lie to strangers […] Call me anything you like, I would never disagree.”
While Mellencamp was pulling most of the songs together before Covid-19 struck, he became aware that they represented a single character. "I realized after a couple, three songs, it was the same voice…" he said," it was the same messenger […] one guy's story. And I felt that it was important to make sure that this guy was represented properly.”
Over 12 new songs, the American heartland legend sings in a grizzly voice that often recalls Bob Dylan or Tom Waits both in sound and lyrical content. This musical direction is confirmed by the participation of Bruce Springsteen who duets with Mellencamp on Wasted Days – the lead single - which reflects on a life where “The end is coming, it’s almost here”; on the accompanying video it looks like Mellencamp may well be strumming his signature 1953 acoustic Martin 000-18. Springsteen also appears on A Life Full of Rain and Did You Say Such a Thing, which together form some of the best songs on the album. One commentator drew an interesting comparison between the two: “If Springsteen’s record felt like the dramatic, high-stakes movie version of small-town struggles, listening to Mellencamp was more like the documentary: an earthy and straightforward snapshot of well-meaning people just trying to get through another long day.”
The blues-driven I Am a Man That Worries combines personal anguish with threat when Mellencamp sings “You better get out of my way, boy”, and features some fine slide guitar by Andy York. Sweet Honey Brown plays with the comparison of a love affair and addiction to heroin, as Mellencamp sings “Haven’t seen your tracks, For a long long while, I’m thinking about quitting on you.” The Heartland icon has previously spoken out against drug abuse, which is perhaps why it has been useful for him to put these words into the mouth of his character, One-Eyed Jack.
Gone So Soon moves the album in a different direction as it has a late-night jazz feel to it and features a trumpet solo from Joey Tartell, Director of Undergraduate Studies at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.
One of the later highlights include the upbeat Chasing Rainbows, which is the second single release. Here Mellencamp duets with guest musician Merritt Lear to share the message that life is about the journey, not the end-point: “At the end of the rainbow, Turns out it’s not somewhere, Look around it’s everywhere, For anyone who cares.”
Strictly a One-Eyed Jack unsparingly looks life straight in the face and reflects on ‘a life full of rain’. But this is not Joy Division-style bleakness as the music itself, rooted in acoustic-driven songs and sung by a man with a fine voice, also provides a comforting and very enjoyable listen.