I was surprised recently to find out that John Mellencamp is putting out a new album on June 16th, Orpheus Descending. It was merely a year and a half ago that Mellencamp released Strictly One-Eyed Jacks, an album that had three collaborations with Bruce Springsteen, including the sensational “Wasted Days.” While I did describe Strictly One-Eyed Jacks as “curmudgeon rock,” I thought it was a good album and I still don’t know why “Wasted Days” wasn’t a huge song.
While I’m very pleased Mellencamp is putting out a new album, it’s very surprising. In the early days, aka the 70s and 80s, Mellencamp put out an album every two years which was pretty standard. Actually in the beginning of his career he put out an album almost every year which sounds like a recipe for burnout. As time went on record companies backed off the album-tour-album-rinse-repeat cycle they used to force artists into and the time between albums started to get longer – and that’s just in general – but certainly applies to Mellencamp. Some artists can take six, seven or even eight years between records these days. I recently reviewed albums from Metallica (72 Seaons) and Dave Matthews Band (Walk Around The Moon) that were seven and five years in the making respectively.
While Mellencamp hasn’t taken that leisurely of a pace, his albums tend to take longer than they used to and come out every three to five years. There have been a couple of times that, like this new record, he’s recorded in back to back years. The first time was Dance Naked, which came out only a year after Human Wheels because the record company pissed Mellencamp off by saying his music “no longer fit the format.” While Rough Harvest came out only a year after John Mellencamp, I’m not including it here as it was a “contract fulfillment” record of old acoustic recordings… The other time in Mellencamp’s career that he did LPs in back to back years was when he put out the oft overlooked gem Freedom’s Road and then the next year turned around with the stark Life, Death, Love, Freedom. Mellencamp has described that latter album as a collection of “electric-folk songs.” Clearly he had something to say.
If we discern anything from these two exceptions from Mellencamp’s past deviation of his recording schedule, it’s that he only quickly records an album when he’s pissed or when he has something to say. Based on these two stunning new songs that have dropped to tease Orpheus Descending, in this case, it’s a little of both – he’s pissed and has something to say about it. There has always been a political element in Mellencamp’s music – and his public commentary – but it’s typically been less overt. It’s more effective to sing a song like “Jackie Brown” to bemoan the plight of poor minorities than to just sing, “Black, poor people are suffering.” It humanizes things to do the former vs sounding like a political speech in the latter.
This is not a political blog, but you’d have to be living in a cave not know what troubled times we live in. There are so many issues that are within our grasp to fix but our government is paralyzed with inaction. The Extreme Right are more concerned with tax cuts for hedge fund billionaires than feeding the poor or fixing our gun problem. Our nation is more divided now than at any time since the late 60s. I have been sitting here wondering why more artists aren’t doing Protest Songs, like in the 60s. Where is our “Eve of Destruction,” “Revolution,” or “Fortunate Son”? I don’t hear young bands addressing the issues of today like bands did in the old days. At least Stevie Nicks re-did the Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” recently.
I guess with no new bands addressing this, it’s up to the older artists to raise their voice in protest. And make no mistake, these two new songs from Mellencamp are full on, overt, Protest Songs. I know Mellencamp is a very “plain spoken” guy but even I was startled at the naked frankness of these two songs. The first track, “Hey God” tackles the issue of gun violence in America. It feels torn from the headlines since, well, mass shootings keep happening over and over again. There 17 mass shooting events over Memorial Day weekend this year alone.
When you start a song with the lyric, “Weapons and guns, are they really my rights? Laws written a long time ago, No one could imagine the sight of so many dead on the floor…” it grabs your attention. The lyrics are a direct encapsulation of every normal Americans thinking on the issue. It’s not only a plea for change but literally a prayer to God for help. While the lyrics are great it’s the music that grabbed me on this superb song. It’s very Lonesome Jubilee-ish instrumentation with a mean slide guitar and violin solo. It reminds me of an even more serious, mellower “Paper In Fire.” This is a song that should be played at every gun protest from now on. I highly recommend this track. Here it is:
The second new track from what will likely prove to be a controversial album is “The Eyes Of Portland.” This song tackles the pressing issue of homelessness. In the past generation over a trillion dollars of wealth has been transferred from the bottom 80% to the top 1%. We’re heading for a new, terrible Gilded Age. So many of our fellow citizens are struggling to eat and find a place they can afford to live. This song doesn’t grab me as hard as “Hey God,” but it’s a good midtempo thing. It’s got the usual Mellencamp big chorus like “Our Country.” It’s an earnest track that once again, doesn’t mince words about the issue of homelessness. It speaks of mental illness, drug casualties and the need for help. It’s got a pretty stunning chorus, “All of these homeless, where do they come from? In this land of plenty where nothing gets done, To help those who are empty and unable to run, Your tears and prayers won’t help the homeless…” Here’s the second new Mellencamp song:
Like most new stuff from older bands, you’re probably not going to hear these wonderful songs on your local radio. But I recommend each of you seek these songs out. Again, this is not a political blog, but when rock n roll strays toward the political, we tend to comment on it. 70% of Americans support rational gun reform yet here are. We’ve got to push the bullshit aside and start coming back together in this country.
It’s a long, dark ride. Take care of each other out there… and blast these two new songs to get you through it.