In the last couple of years, John Mellencamp has experienced a career arc similar to that of Bruce Springsteen. The Indiana native has some serious mid-West cred in reserve, but absolutely zero percent of it is on display on No Better Than This. Instead, the album is most definitely rooted in the Southern blues that would branch off into every conceivable genre we see, today. And, like Springsteen, who has ventured often in his late career into the realms of New Orleans blues and general Southern folk, that suit so close to that side of the Mississippi is one that Mellencamp fits surprisingly well. For however banal and predictable the sounds of No Better Than This are, all credit should be given to Mellencamp for making it all sound absolutely genuine.
There is one clear exception to the roots rock sound on display on No Better Than This. The religious piety that is so often associated with this genre of music is disregarded, and, sometimes, revoked. "I ain't been baptized / I ain't got no church / When I pray to Jesus / It makes matters worse," Mellencamp admits on "Each Day of Sorrow". Within the first track, Mellencamp urges you to always question your faith, and, throughout the album, the afterlife is questioned and the angels, normally seen as harbingers of peace, are coming after him. Once that reversal of the lyrical archetype is revealed, one begins to see that much of No Better Than This is a clever spin on the tone of the album as a whole. "Thinking About You" is played out through a message on an answering machine, an especially moving piece of lyrical brilliance that Mellencamp makes sound far too easy and "Love at First Sight" tells the story of the rise and fall of a relationship, told in a playful manner as the man starts all his verses with the preface, "Let's suppose".
But that's the thing about No Better Than This. The music, itself, is so unremarkable, it's too easy to ignore the sharp lyricism lying beneath. If Mellencamp wasn't so concerned with making up the difference in lyrical divergence with such mediocre musicianship, No Better Than This could be the man's best album. Unfortunately, one of the greatest lyrical achievements of the year is masked by one of its most superficial exteriors, resulting in a lost couldabeen rather than a late-career masterpiece.