John Mellencamp, ‘Orpheus Descending': Album Review
John Mellencamp was lost as the 21st century began, taking part in curious duets and obvious sentiment. It was as if he'd run out of hats to wear, after emerging as a pop singer, shifting to heartland rock then deeper into rootsy Americana and finally tracing back into muscular rock. Then Mellencamp announced 2003's Trouble No More, an album of blues and folk covers, and that seemed to put a period on the paperwork for his creative bankruptcy.
But a funny thing happened on the way through those songs by Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie and Memphis Minnie: John Mellencamp found his voice. Not his old voice; his next characters were working dead-end jobs inside the Tastee Freeze, instead of making out around back. He began to confront the issues that plague us, the mistakes that haunt us and the people we let down along the way. The music matched this more serious turn, strum for strum. It was darker, slower, by turns more dangerous and eerily lonesome. His next six albums, beginning with 2007's blunt and intriguing Freedom's Road, were often revelatory. Mellencamp's voice, like his songs, was older, scarred – but those imperfections only gave it all more gravity.
Then he returned with 2022's Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, an embittered post-quarantine record that often traded the righteous indignation and insightful worry from those earlier LPs for a dreary kind of pessimism. It was hard to know if this was simply a grievous reaction to an era surrounded by disruption and death, or the next turn in a career marked by so many. Was John Mellencamp becoming a grumpy old man? Either way, the record bombed, becoming his first in 15 years to miss the Top 20 when it stalled at a paltry No. 196.
The quite ominously named follow-up Orpheus Descending doesn't exactly bode well. Then there's the subject matter, which ranges from America's complex relationship with guns ("Hey God") and the suffering of the unhoused ("The Eyes of Portland") to our growing national division ("Amen") and the self-explanatory "The So-Called Free." Yet shards of sunlight cut through the clouds, in a reminder of the determination and hope that bolstered the best of his turn-of-the-2010s material. "Orpheus Descending" promises that "there's always a fuckin' way," while "Lightning and Luck" is built on a foundation of perseverance, despite it all. The narrator in "One More Trick" may be facing a noose, but he's going out with an impish gleam in his eye.
Even when "Perfect World" laments romantic missteps, it's without a trace of self-pity. The music here also sometimes kicks up a heel, thanks in no small way to the presence of ace fiddle player Lisa Germano. Finally, on the album-closing "Backbone," Mellencamp promises, "I'll try to do better with what time I have left." It's Orpheus Descending's reason for being.