John Mellencamp weaves deft, weary tales on the elegant Orpheus Descending

John Mellencamp's 25th album Orpheus Descending is still flecked with melancholy and socially minded ire

John Mellencamp: Orpheus Descending cover art
(Image: © Republic)

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For a man who has spent a life railing at the musical barricades and who has a renowned self-destructive streak, at the age of 71 John Mellencamp is looking and sounding a damn sight better than he might have the right to. These days he might resemble someone who might wave a fence post around to scare you off his land for trespassing, but as a painter and songwriter Mellencamp has aged very well indeed. 

His vocal range and tone might now haunt the hinterlands often visited by Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, but the rasp from those hard-lived years adds a wonderful lustre to the songs and subjects he’s addressing and the things he’s chosen to write about now. 

The deft storytelling, enhanced by that elegant weariness, be it the social commentary of The Eyes Of Portland or the much better Land Of The So Called Free and the beautiful and broken down The Kindness Of Lovers. The latter two both carry the rueful weight of the years, something that was once kindness now long-since turned to neglect. 

Truth be told, Mellencamp appears to be on something of a songwriting hot streak, especially when he’s in a more contemplative mood; Understated Reverence, with its mournful violin and quiet reflections, might have appeared on Waits' Rain Dogs, while Lightning And Luck, a plaintive guitar part and a handful of memories and recollections, has its strength in simplicity, which is a welcome motif all record long.

Philip Wilding

Philip Wilding is a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, biographer and radio producer. As a young journalist he criss-crossed most of the United States with bands like Motley Crue, Kiss and Poison (think the Almost Famous movie but with more hairspray). More latterly, he’s sat down to chat with bands like the slightly more erudite Manic Street Preachers, Afghan Whigs, Rush and Marillion.