Sad Clowns and Hillbillies

John Mellencamp has released another incredible album. For those looking for the Mellencamp of yesteryear, who did the classic rock anthems, you won’t find him on this album. In fact, you haven’t been able to find him on the last couple of albums, No Better Than This and Plain Spoken either. This newest effort, Sad Clowns and Hillbillies, is right on target with those previous album, and for those of us who get where Mellencamp is going, it’s another awesome record.

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Sad Clowns and Hillbillies is a bit different than the two previous albums. It was originally slated as a duets album, although only a few of the tracks are actually duets. The album features vocal contributions from Carlene Carter and Martina McBride, drum work from Stan Lynch (of Tom Petty fame), as well as drum work by Kenny Aronoff, who played drums with John throughout the 80s and 90s. Other guests on the album include Christie Brinkley on background vocals and Izzy Stradlin playing guitar.

The sound of Sad clowns and Hillbillies is a bit on the country side, but that’s not surprising with Carlene Carter singing on five of the tracks. It’s also got some folk qualities and a healthy dose of blues. Mellencamp’s aging voice suits the the sound of the record well. It’s the gravelly old blues singer voice that Mellencamp has been waiting his whole life to sing with. It’s a voice that brings warmth and sincerity to the songs. If you don’t buy into Mellencamp’s sincerity, you ain’t got no money, baby.

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The songs on the record cover a broad range of topics, from love to politics, to the very core of human nature. The songs are delivered with sparse instrumentation, simple arrangements, and heartfelt, if brutal, honesty. Most of the songs were written by Mellencamp, though there are a few co-writes, and even three tracks Mellencamp had nothing to do with writing. These are great songs on another great Mellencamp record.

Grandview, All Night Talk Radio, Early Bird Cafe, and What Kind of Man Am I? are some of the standout songs on the album. They’re all good, but these are my favorites. I’ve listened to the album three times, and each time I found something new to like about it. There are so many layers built into the lyrics and so many textures in the music.

“Mobile Blue”
“Battle of Angels”
“Grandview” (featuring Martina McBride)
“Indigo Sunset”
“What Kind of Man am I”
“All Night Talk Radio”
“Sugar Hill Mountain”
“You Are Blind”
“Damascus Road”
“Early Bird Cafe”
“Sad Clowns”
“My Soul’s Got Wings”
“Easy Target”

Even with new musical direction, somewhere beneath it all is the same John Mellencamp who’s always been there. Age has brought a bit more wisdom and new perspectives, but the John Mellencamp attitude is as alive on this new record as it’s been on any of his previous efforts. Hell, maybe even more so.

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