Getting Old Sucks
Musicals used to be the province of Broadway. They were written by men with names like Rogers & Hammerstein and Gilbert & Sullivan. They were mostly light-hearted affairs with a few show-stoppers and, for the most part, they stayed away from mainstream rock music. A few tried to meld the camp of Broadway and rock music, like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, but for the most part, they remained separate. As Gen X’ers get older, it makes sense that Broadway and the radio meet; both the musicians and their fans are at an age when they no longer spend their days touring and their nights at rock clubs. So imagine if a Gen X nerd’s favorite writer, singers and songwriters came together to craft the perfect musical. Well, keep wondering because Ghost Brothers of Darkland County isn’t it.
The amount of talent involved in this production is astounding. The book was written by Stephen King with John Mellencamp writing all seventeen songs. The performers on the soundtrack include Elvis Costello, Neko Case, Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow, Taj Mahal, and Rosanne Cash among others. If that isn’t enough for you, how about production by mastermind T-Bone Burnett? It seems like this would be the Monsters of Rock of Americana, right?
For starters, this is a soundtrack to a musical, which means there is a nonsensical story between every song that the listener has to endure. King has decided to write a Southern Gothic tale about the murder of a pair of brothers in a cabin, blah, blah, blah-– it really adds up to nothing, at least on the soundtrack. I doubt whether seeing it live makes the story any more interesting, as many critics have panned King’s book. If you are a fan of True Blood and other Southern Gothic tales, this may all appeal to you, but the phony Southern accents, overacting and “down-home” and “gritty” vibe come across incredibly forced and feel like an amateur regional production. It’s very painful hearing Neko Case overdoing a Southern accent while reciting bad King verse and then launching into equally painful lyrics. Talk about killing your idols.
The songs are mostly forgettable, somewhat boring, affairs that seem tailor-made for NPR and middle-aged Volvo drivers. You can practically hear Terry Gross falling over herself as she plays snippets from choice songs during her Mellencamp interview. It’s incredible that with all of the talent involved, there isn’t one song that sticks in your head like “Jack & Diane.” Hearing someone say “hurts so good” in casual conversation generates an earworm. Mellencamp, in his bid to write something “important,” overthought the entire process. To give you an idea of Mellencamp’s headspace, check out this quote from 2002 when he was initially planning this musical: “I plan to have every person sing from their generation. This is what I’m thinking right now, but it may not work out this way. When the 18-year-old sings, he’ll be rapping at you. When the people in their 70s are singing, they’ll be singing in the style of Broadway or the style of Frank Sinatra or country. I intend to cover any type of music that Americans have invented.” Mercifully, that didn’t happen-– but anyone who would say that on record is clearly overthinking the music.