After making the transition from rebellious rocker to tireless troubadour, John Mellencamp now claims a similar status to those who find themselves in that populist echelon inhabited by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger and Willie Nelson, an elite group of rugged rockers whose allegiance is always with the Everyman. His heartland stance and populist appeal underscore a rustic, well-worn delivery, allowing him to gracefully segue into that higher calling willfully and respectfully as well.
At first glance, Carlene Carter might seem an unusual foil for an album whose title (Sad Clowns & Hillbillies) clearly hints at the follies and foibles inherent in this post-Trump world. Recorded at his usual creative habitat, Belmont Mall in Nashville, Indiana, it looks at life as it’s transpired in the months following that fateful election and hints at internal changes and introspective musings in the context of troubled times. Mellencamp, singing with a muddled croak that brings ready comparisons to Tom Waits or present day Dylan, hints at this despair indirectly simply by way of his delivery — on the ramshackle “Battle of Angels,” the spirited sass and strut of “Grandview,” the darker musings that shade “What Kind of Man Am I?” and his weary, rambling take on “All Night Talk Radio.” There, in particular, lies an ominous hint of foreboding, troubled and worrisome with discontent at the core.
Carter, who mostly takes a support role throughout, manages to provide some relief on her solo songs, particularly the honeysuckle sounds of “Indigo Sunset” and the easy, ambling, relatively carefree “Sugar Hill Mountain.” Likewise, when Mellencamp turns to the harp-blown, hand-clapping, gospel-like shout-out “My Soul’s Got Wings” or the dryly self-effacing “Sad Clowns,” the mood is at once elevated, and with it, the attitude overall.
While” Jack and Diane” now belong to the disenfranchised majority and those little pink houses often face foreclosure, Mellencamp clearly remains committed to their cause. Sad Clowns & Hillbillies all, they’re now an integral part of the American malaise.