Since those heady early days when Mellencamp was touted by record labels as the heartland rock, pinup boy Johnny Cougar, through to his eventual reshaping into his true self, the strength of his songwriting has always been consistent. Now, with his 23rd studio album, Mellencamp again shows his range and canny ability to draw on all strands of roots music.
The stylistic variety on Sad Clowns & Hillbillies makes for a restless yet rewarding listen. He throws himself back into his 80s swagger and rock n roll on ‘Grandview’, a duet with Martina McBride, while elsewhere there are no less than five collaborations with Carlene Carter who’s voice adds colour and soul to those songs. ‘All Night Talk Radio’ starts like a Dirty Three song with woozy fiddle before the beat and an infectious melody takes hold – screaming out to be a single material. ‘Sad Clowns’ is a late period Dylan-sounding jazzy blues song that swings in a grizzled bar singer way before Mellencamp goes full Tom Waits for the closer ‘Easy Target’, his voice growling with character over an upright piano and high lonesome fiddle.
This is a diverse collection of well written and well executed songs and yet another strong entry in Mellencamp’s impressive canon of work.