While not as hit-packed as Scarecrow or an artistic triumph on the level of The Lonesome Jubilee, John Mellencamp’s latest proves he still matters. He’s hasn’t abandoned his rural fix; aside from all those Hootie songs, “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)” is one of the few hits with both a prominent harmonica solo and a jangling guitar. The much-talked-about production of dance guru Junior Vasquez isn’t so much revolutionary as simply interesting, driving rock-solid drummer Kenny Aranoff to play faster and louder.
From character sketches of weirdoes who skateboard in the rain (“Jerry”), to the aimlessness and indecision of not knowing what to do with himself (“Just Another Day”), Mellencamp is still wonderfully mixed up, unclear about who he is and why he does the things he does. In perhaps the most chilling moment of an already dark album, a hollow voice repeatedly calls out “Is that OK? Is that OK?”, only to be drowned out by an echoing cackle. Mellencamp’s knack for bringing themes of loss, confusion and love to the level of regular folks without watering them down has rarely been stronger.