My favorite kind of album is the one that is totally unexpected. The classic example would be Bob Dylan's "Time Out of Mind," which represented a return to glory after more than 20 years of...well, less than glory. It's great when the new album by M.I.A. or Arcade Fire turns out to be great, but you sort of expect that. But when something comes out of the blue and just grabs you by the throat (or the ears, I guess), it just seems to add to the experience.
This year's example of that would be John Mellencamp's "No Better Than This." Mellencamp's last several albums have been fairly dull - his bonafides established, he seemed to be determined to establish himself as the truth-telling roots man of our time. The only problem was that most of his material, though admirable, was fairly dull. And the omnipresent "This Is Our Country," which under normal circumstances might have qualified as a classic Springsteen-style rocker, became downright annoying after it became the unofficial theme song of NBC's Sunday Night Football.
On the new one, Mellencamp again goes for the roots feel, but discovers a sense of humor in the process, and it adds a whole new dimension to the proceedings. You can almost see the sly smile on his face when he begins to sing, probably imagining himself as Elvis or Johnny Cash, circa 1958, working in the studio (Sun Studios, to be exact) with Sam Phillips.
Many of the songs were recorded at Sun Studios, and playing the role of Sam Phillips is T-Bone Burnett, whose only rival as the producer of our time is Rick Rubin. The recording techniques harken back to an earlier era, to the point where you can really imagine Elvis or Johnny stepping out on the stage, and singing these songs just the way the Mellencamp sings them on the album.
It's a triumph of sound, and a triumph of concept. Songs like the title track and "Love at First Sight" are timeless; they would have been hits back in the late fifties, and we can only hope that they'll be hits today. This is probably the album that John Mellencamp was born to make, and given the chance to make it, he came through - in spades.