Strip away the arena-rock production, which the man himself has done on recent tours, and it's easy enough to see John Mellencamp's Woody Guthrie-esque destiny in even his biggest early-'80s hits. Anthemic chorus aside, "Jack and Diane" is a simple folk song about, well, "two kids growing up in the heartland," and his power-to-the-people sentiments were never very far from the surface of "Authority Song" and "Pink Houses" to begin with, no matter how loud his amps were turned up. On the 25th anniversary of 1985's Scarecrow, which did little to hide Mellencamp's disgust with the dead end faced by family farms and other hallmarks of his rural Indiana youth in Reagan-era America, he went back to the future. Recorded on the fly with producer T-Bone Burnett while on tour for 2008's Life Death Love & Freedom, last year's No Better Than This put straight to analog tape in some of the country's most historic musical sites — Sun Studios in Memphis, the San Antonio hotel room where Robert Johnson cut "Stones in My Passway" — and stands as the work of a man who has become a master of American roots music (rock and roll included) and, give or take a bypass surgery here and there, has lost little of the youthful vigor and indignation of his Johnny Cougar days.
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