John Mellencamp has spent the past decade paring his music to its acoustic roots, while struggling with existential questions and examining an America gone awry. He returns in a similar vein and with an even more deeply conflicted soul, on his uncompromising 20th studio record of original material. What remains of his jubilee has become more lonesome. It opens with “Troubled Man,” a revealing portrait of a psyche in disrepair; the following nine songs explore doubt, faith, love’s dissolution (“Tears in Vain”), and socio-political hypocrisy (“Company of Cowards,” “Lawless Times”). Mellencamp produces with subtlety, allowing his agile ensemble, featuring guitars, mandolin, fiddle, and organ, plenty of space to offset his often claustrophobic lyrics. He eschews observational narrative for a more personal approach (“always felt like sorrow was a lesson / always felt I needed to feel the pain”), his voice as ravaged as his worldview. The hooks are restrained, yet Mellencamp never loses sight of melodies and his fine song sense. Unsettled and disconsolate, these songs fittingly reflect their time. (Out Tuesday)
ESSENTIAL “Tears in Vain”Ken Capobianco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.