On this day in 1988, John Mellencamp was sitting at #22 on the charts with the nostalgic, cheery and slightly rustic-sounding “Cherry Bomb.” Well, John’s still seeming a bit nostalgic and rustic, but a lot has changed over the 34 years in between…as we clearly hear on his brand new album, Strictly A One-eyed Jack.
Now by definition a “one-eyed Jack” is a Jack of Hearts or Jack of Spades in a card deck; both are portrayed looking sideways so we only see one of their eyes. Metaphorically however, a “one-eyed Jack” is someone who only lets you see one side – the good one – of themselves. More and more as the years roll by we see Mellencamp was the one-eyed Jack with his early, reasonably happy-go-lucky rock star persona. As Rolling Stone noted, the cover of The Lonesome Jubilee (from which “Cherry Bomb” came) John was “sitting in a small-town bar next to a stone-faced farmer who looks like he’s been parked there since the Dust Bowl. Now Mellencamp has essentially become that guy.” Or as Pop Matters declare, by now he’s “dropped the rock persona entirely and stripped his songs down to scratchier, scorched earth, largely acoustic” ones. Clearly, …One-eyed Jack is a long way removed from “Jack and Diane”.
Although, perhaps not as much as we might guess. Remember, that single that made John a household name urges the young ‘uns to “hold on to 16 as long as you can” because “life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.” Sentiments which set the tone for the new album. Strictly A One-eyed Jack is a bleak affair to listen to, lyrically and at times musically. But it’s also compelling, well-played and thoughtful. It’s a good album, but it’s not the one you put on while the party is roaring… it’s the one you go to when those last few drunks won’t clear out and let you get to bed. Starting with the starter, too. “I Always Lie to Strangers” is probably the bleakest of the lot, with Mellencamp sounding as old as his state of Indiana (as Rolling Stone note, he now “approaches Bob Dylan and Tom Waits territory in its rangy, weathered gravitas) as he wearily talks of lying and reminds us “this world is run by men more crooked than me.” It comes across a little like an endurance test… only the devout or daring are going to keep listening after such a downbeat entrance. And, yep, it’s only one of two songs with “lie” in the title. There are two about rain too, for good measure!
The album does pick up from there, however, and exhibits a surprising range of musical territory played through an underlying roots, Americana theme. “I Am A Man That Worries” sounds like a brooding old blues number from the Delta. “Streets of Galillee” more like a pop tune played by a bluegrass band. “Gone So Soon” sounds like it could be a Billy Joel number sung by Ray Charles. One wonders, listening to it if he was thinking of the many friends and family that have gone on to the after-life before him, or about his on-again, off-again girlfriend Meg Ryan, when he sings “all the plans we made are now being remade with someone new.” There’s even a ballsy rocker for old-times sake, albeit a blisteringly angry one, “Did You Say Such a Thing”, which not coincidentally is one of the three tracks that Bruce Springsteen worked on with him. And there are moments of brightness and light. “Driving In the Rain” is a folksy little waltz and “Chasing Rainbows” (a song which several, myself included have found to sound rather like The Band) offers up some smart advice : “at the end of the rainbow, turns out it’s not somewhere, look around it’s everywhere for anyone who cares.” After all the songs about lying and getting old it almost comes across like a Muppet Show ditty. But in a good way.
The best track though is probably the one that lends its name to the record. “Simply a One-eyed Jack” is instantly catchy and the most interesting song about a card game since Kenny Rogers boarded that train decades ago. It showcases his new band’s strengths, which in turn is the album’s real shining moment . Troye Kinnett in particular stands out on the accordion, traditional organ and piano while several players use violins and fiddles to great effect. About the only time you’re going to discern a Stratocaster or Les Paul in the whole effort is when The Boss happens into the room.
Strictly A One-eyed Jack. Not quite four aces, but I’ll give it a full house… 3.5 face cards out of five. It’s like a meal of steel cut oats and turnip greens – tasty, nutritious, a bit old-fashioned, but after awhile you might start craving something a bit lighter and sweeter for a break.