The Popdose Guide to John Mellencamp
Act I: Johnny Cougar
I remember finding a cassette of this album back in the ’80s and enjoying the hell out of it, most notably for the fun covers of “Jailhouse Rock,” “Twentieth Century Fox” and “(Oh) Pretty Woman” and whenever I found a book that claimed to review every album ever made, I’d look up my favorite artists and Mellencamp was on that list, so whenever I came across the entry for Chestnut Street Incident I was always shocked to see it get one star (and in some cases, less than one). This album is despised — I think I even read one review which claimed it was one of the worse albums ever made. At the time, I thought the writer was being overly harsh; however, I was lacking history and context.
By now we’ve all heard the story of how Mellencamp basically sold his soul to the devil, who in this case happened to be David Bowie’s manager, Tony DeFries. Besides christening Mellencamp with the stage name “Johnny Cougar,” he had Mellencamp churn out an album that was full of half classic rock standards and half original material for MCA. In retrospect, Chestnut is a fascinating historical document, but nothing more. This is the type of album that record companies still try and force down the public’s throat — albums where the artist in question is merely a puppet, and sadly, most of these ventures fail. For every *NSYNC and Beyonce, there is a “Johnny Cougar.” The album was dismissed even before it could potentially find an impact, and Mellencamp was almost immediately dropped by MCA.
Despite DeFries trying to sell something that appeared unoriginal, there are good moments on Chestnut, especially on the track “Dream Killin’ Town” (download), which is a template that Mellencamp would expand on later with “Small Town” and other heartland rockers. The melody is decent and the lyrics aren’t great, but it’s a solid number that could have been re-worked in later years as a more epic track. “American Dream” (download) is another track that deserves more credit than it gets. It’s not mind-blowing by any means, but there are shades of potential on this album, even if it is widely despised by everyone (including Mellencamp). Unfortunately for Mellencamp, DeFries owns the masters, and continues to reissue them every few years with “newly discovered” bonus tracks, enticing diehard fans to line the pockets of a man who almost destroyed Mellencamp’s career before it started.
What Chestnut Street Incident had going for it (a lot of rollicking covers), The Kid Inside doesn’t. In fact, it almost feels as if there were throwaway tracks from the first album that were scraped together for a quick follow-up release. In truth, I have never been able to confirm that this album was ever actually released in 1977, as every bit of research I have been able to find shows Mellencamp being dropped from MCA immediately following the disaster of Chestnut Street Incident. Whenever it originally appeared on record store shelves, it’s widely available today, much to Mellencamp’s chagrin. When I originally found this album on cassette back in 1989, I listened to it once, put it on the shelf, and left it there. I eventually picked it up on CD and gave it a few more listens for this review, but even with time on its side, it still doesn’t add up to much.
The title track is full of fury, vivacity and confidence which his debut could have used; however, as the album goes on, most tracks are full of forgettable lyrics backed by too much macho cockiness (“Take What You Want”). Songs like “Cheap Shot” feel like Billy Joel outtakes five generations removed. The truth is that many of these songs are not as bad as many would lead you to believe, it’s just they have some god awful arrangements. “Gearhead” (download) starts out with admirable cinematic eeriness — until a saxophone comes in from out of nowhere during the chorus, completely destroying what the song had going for it. A few of these songs, including “Too Young To Live” (download), have some smoldering guitars and grandiose drums, but then there’s that damn saxophone again. The production on these songs is downright horrid (something Bruce Springsteen also experienced on his first two albums). The most disappointing thing is that many of these songs were not complete throwaways — with a good co-writer and a top flight producer, they could have become something more than a recurring nightmare that won’t leave John Mellencamp alone.
After a bad experience with DeFries, Mellencamp (or Cougar, depending on your point of view) went to London, where he signed with the small Riva label. He got down to business in London recording A Biography, and upon its release, he scored a minor hit with “I Need A Lover” on the Australian charts. This album was only released internationally and did not see a US release on CD until 2005, when Mellencamp’s entire Mercury catalog got a major overhaul. This is the final album to use the name “Johnny Cougar,” and of the three that bear this name, it’s the best. The album is a solid yet uneven effort, led by the mammoth and epic track, “I Need A Lover” (which is different from the one that would appear a year later — you can hear the drumstick tapping before the soaring intro. There were alternate recordings of “I Need A Lover” recorded for this album, but they’ve never seen the light of day, even on the 2005 reissue). This album actually has a much rawer edge than either of the albums that followed. The guitars are cranked up loud for “Born Reckless” (download) and “Night Slumming” (download), and Cougar does his best Rolling Stones impression a la “It’s Only Rock N’ Roll.” “Alley of the Angels” shoots for the stars like Springsteen did with “Jungleland,” and even though Mellencamp comes nowhere near that cut, it’s still a damn fine tune. The songs on A Biography are crude, under-produced and raw, which adds to the album’s allure. It shows that as soon as Mellencamp got away from DeFries and those god-awful saxophone solos, he did indeed have a knack for music. This is a better album than most would imagine, even if it’s not essential.
Act II: John Cougar
Inspired by the minor success of “I Need A Lover” overseas, Riva made sure that it was included on his 1979 follow-up, titled simply John Cougar. “I Need A Lover” barely cracked the Top 40 (#28), but it gave him enough attention to help the album chart (#64) and eventually record another one. While there is nothing horrid on the album, “I Need A Lover” aside, there’s not much that stands out even after multiple listens. Almost every track sounds equally dated: “A Little Night Dancin'” (download) is a nice little popwise number, but “Small Paradise” (download) relies on clichÃ©s that never work. There’s even a re-recording of “Taxi Dancer,” which originally appeared on A Biography, and the beefed-up production here does nothing for the song, making one wonder why he even tried re-recording it. John Cougar is a coherent album that shows the further evolution of a man who in a few short years would be defined as the “Heart of the Heartland” — but not before he took another pop detour.
This is where John Cougar began to define his voice. I always dismissed it as a two-hit album (the great “Ain’t Even Done with the Night” & the not so great “This Time”). However, while it’s arguably one of his weakest efforts, there are some fine moments on it. “Hot Night In A Cold Town” (download) gets things off to a sweltering start with another song that lyrically could be related to Springsteen’s ’70s work, but this time it’s a number that doesn’t pale in comparison. However, other tracks, such as “Don’t Misunderstand Me,” “Make Me Feel,” “Tonight,” and “Wherever She May Be,” don’t age as gracefully. The keyboards on “Don’t Misunderstand Me” are especially painful. Still, “Cheap Shot” (download) is eerily relevant to the modern music industry, and is worth hearing if for nothing else than Mellencamp’s swaggering delivery. I almost wonder why he doesn’t add it to his concerts. The 2005 remaster included the bonus track, “Latest Game,” which is a leftover track from the American Fool sessions, and ironically is as good as most of the Fool tracks and better than most of his first three Riva albums. It’s a welcome addition to this disc, and alone makes it worth a purchase. Even though the album is wildly erratic, it set the stage for what eventually broke Mellencamp into the mainstream.
American Fool (1982)
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In the current industry climate, U2 would have been given the ax after its second album. Today’s record companies put too much value on the bottom dollar and very little on artistic development. Many artists take at least three albums to find their true voice and stride. John Mellencamp’s ride to the top was a little longer: His big breakthrough was 1982’s American Fool, his sixth album. Even in the late ’70s and early ’80s, this was almost unheard of. It’s a testament to how an artist can truly blossom four or five albums into their career, and how we should never write anyone off (unless you’re the lead singer of a band called Creed).
After seven years of flirting with success, John Cougar finally hit the big time. At the peak of American Fool‘s commercial success it was the number one album, “Jack & Diane” was the number one single, and “Hurts So Good” was in the Top Ten. The last artist to accomplish this feat before Cougar was John Lennon. Cougar was driven and focused on this album, and producer Don Gehman gave it a straight-ahead rock focus with impressive pop sensibilities. The songs speak for themselves, and still sound great today.
“Thundering Hearts” makes your heartbeat race, led by the pinpoint thundering drums of Kenny Aronoff. The sublime “Weakest Moments” (download) is an insightful flipside to the poppy “Jack & Diane,” — another ode to love — but in the last minute, a giant chorus comes in to accentuate the title. “Close Enough” and “China Girl” are clichÃ© rockers, but the backing band (led by guitarist Larry Crane and drummer Kenny Aronoff) transcends. For years I focused on the three hit singles on this album (the aforementioned two hits and the #19 “Hand To Hold On To”) and mostly ignored the rest, but it’s far better than I ever remembered. This isn’t a great album, but it’s very undervalued. The bonus track on the remaster, “American Fool” (download), is a very welcome addition, as it was left off the original release by the record company. It actually fleshes the album out and gives it a more fitting final track. Beginning with this album and for the next dozen years, John Cougar Mellencamp would be at the zenith of his recording career.
Act IV: John Cougar Mellencamp
This is the album that restored Cougar’s proper surname and credibility as an artist. Here, he proved himself to be more than a pop star — a songwriter who had a finger on the pulse of the American consciousness — with tracks like “Crumblin’ Down” and “Pink Houses.” “Authority Song” has one of the absolute best opening riffs of the last twenty-five years, and “Play Guitar” (download) is arguably the catchiest song of the bunch; it’s a mystery as to why it was never issued as s single. He also proved his no-nonsense work ethic with an album recorded in a brief 16 days. Only “Jackie O” does not work. Uh-Huh showed that while some artists are late bloomers, they also flourish brighter and live longer than the industry’s many one-hit wonders. “Crumblin’ Down,” “Pink Houses” and “Authority Song” still tear down arenas to this day. The album even boasts the following career-defining lyrics: “Forget about all that macho shit and learn how to play guitar.”
Released during the same year he helped co-found Farm Aid, Scarecrow stands as John Mellencamp’s masterpiece. Twenty-two years after its initial release, it still sounds as if it could have been recorded just a few months ago. What makes Scarecrow so good is Mellencamp’s ability to challenge himself and his listener. He could have stayed on course, with pure rock along the lines of “Hurts So Good,” but he branched out and expanded his musical template, proving to be far more than a Dylan or Springsteen wannabe. He dug the heels of his boots in deep and recorded one of the defining records of the ’80s.
To this day, Mellencamp still performs the majority of this album live. It’s the soundtrack to Middle America, the same way Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born to Run were for lower-class New Jersey. Mellencamp transcends all musical boundaries with an album that is as raw as it is rustic. Listening to it makes you feel like you’re paging through an old photo album — it’s a piece of Americana at its best. Despair and dreams are at the center of the album; the struggles of the heartland (“Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Small Town”), Friday night fun (“Lonely Ol’ Night,” “Minutes to Memories” [download]) and the pure escapism that music gives to the soul (“Rumbleseat,” “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”) are all showcased in one rousing anthem after another.
“Between a Laugh and a Tear” (download) isn’t as poetic as something by Dylan or Springsteen, but its simplicity makes it that much easier to digest. Mellencamp was often criticized for not having being as lyrically profound or poetic as the two aforementioned artists, but what everyone tends to overlook is the fact that instead of trying to copy one of his heroes, he’s found his own voice, and is running with it the best he can. “Between a Laugh and a Tear” demonstrates this better than anything else in his catalog.
There are songs of hope, redemption, anguish, and searching for truth in the heartland of Reagan’s America — in my opinion, this was the album Springsteen should have made with Born In The U.S.A..
The Lonesome Jubilee (1987)
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Two years after Scarecrow blasted across the American FM dial, Mellencamp returned with an album that continued to cultivate his musical persona. The album’s sonic palette was accentuated specifically by Lisa Germano’s violin and John Casella’s accordion, which helped meld a perfect blend of country, blues, gospel, soul and roots rock into a package that became Mellencamp’s unique trademark sound. When Springsteen incorporated violinist Susie Tyrell on his 2002 album, The Rising, the tables were finally turned, as many compared what Springsteen was doing to what Mellencamp had done fifteen years earlier.
Today, The Lonesome Jubilee would probably be classified as country, but back in 1987, rock radio gladly embraced it. The album is unlike anything else released in 1987, and it’s almost shocking that it yielded three Top 15 hits. During Mellencamp’s sets on the Vote For Change concerts in 2004, he performed “We Are the People,” a forgotten track from this album that will hopefully continued to be heard in the future. The themes, all of which were written in 1987, are still valid today, twenty years later. One essential reason to buy the 2005 remaster is for the bonus track, the bluegrass number “Blues from the Front Porch.”
Unlike Scarecrow, The Lonesome Jubilee is underrepresented during live performances today. Aside from the three singles, the only other track performed with any kind of regularity is “The Real Life.” I was shocked to find as many hidden gems as I did when I revisited this album: “Down and Out in Paradise,” “Empty Hands,” “Hard Times for an Honest Man,” and “Rooty Toot Toot” were all but forgotten from my memory as I never see Mellencamp perform them. These songs are so developed that they make you not care about the tossed-off “Hotdogs and Hamburgers.” He has a treasure chest of goodies here — one wonders why he ignores performing such potent and relevant music for hard times. It’s a shame the album (and most of Mellencamp’s album cuts) rarely get performed, because these tracks are vital to Mellencamp’s legacy; he should be remembered for songs like these, instead of his current stint as a car spokesman.
In the spring of 1989, Big Daddy was quickly rising to the top of the charts — “Pop Singer” cracked the Top 20 — when all of a sudden, the album and single disappeared without a trace. Mellencamp chose to not promote his final album as John Cougar Mellencamp. It’s a shame, because it’s his catalog’s diamond in the rough. It’s easy to dismiss the record’s subdued and melancholy tone, but — shoot me for using another Springsteen analogy — this was Mellencamp’s Nebraska. However, while most of Bruce’s songs were presented from the third person, virtually everything on Big Daddy is from the first person. When you hear what sounds like a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis, you know Mellencamp is singing about himself. He was going through a divorce right at the time of its release, and aside from an appearance on the Letterman show, his support for the album was constrained to videos for “Pop Singer” and the second single, “Jackie Brown,” which just missed cracking the Top 40.
Over the years, I have re-discovered Big Daddy on more than one occasion. “To Live,” “Void in My Heart,” and “Mansions in Heaven” all depict an artist in crisis, yearning for simpler times and a unified family. He has struggled with his demons and, in 1989, has not overcome them.
A few years back, I saw Mellencamp perform “Big Daddy of Them All” (download) acoustically in concert, with a sped-up tempo, and the arrangement cast it in a completely new light. He claims he wrote it about someone he knew, but I feel it was autobiographical. This was the album where nothing was left concealed. Even despite the personal nature of the album, he couldn’t go without a shot at Ronald Reagan, who had just left office mere months earlier, with “Country Gentleman” (download). The issue of poverty is addressed on “Jackie Brown,” while “Martha Say” shows a woman walk to the beat of her own drummer while Kenny Aronoff pummels his drumsticks into splinters on the album’s most defiant song.
Big Daddy is one of Mellencamp’s most subdued and introspective albums; however, those who write it off because of its minimalism are missing out. This is a noteworthy album from a man in crisis. Shortly after the summer of 1989, John Mellencamp began to paint, and disappeared completely from the musical landscape for close to two years. When he returned, he was a new man in more than one way.
Act V: John Mellencamp
Two weeks after Nirvana’s Nevermind landed in record stores, and three weeks after Guns N’ Roses’ double-disc opus Use Your Illusion debuted, John Mellencamp was reborn. October 8, 1991 saw the release of Whenever We Wanted, the first album released under the last name he would ever use: John Mellencamp.
Whenever We Wanted found Mellencamp striving forward and all but abandoning the accordion, fiddle and other assorted “heartland” trappings he had perfected over his last three albums to showcase the thunderous return of the electric guitar. Not only is it a fine return to form, but he has turned up the volume, producing his heaviest record to date. Right from the get-go, the storming, politically conscious “Love & Happiness” sets the course, with thick-crunching riffs that would not relent until the disc had spun all ten tunes. While the album is arguably his least adventurous since American Fool, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Mellencamp had taken the pastoral sounds as far as he could with Scarecrow, The Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy. Here, the music is stripped to the bare minimum; while Lisa Germano’s violin is absent from the entire recording, guitarists Mike Wanchic and David Grissom lead the attack with their dueling guitars, while drummer Kenny Aronoff and bassist Toby Myers keep the beat as John Cascella fills in colors with his Hammond B-3. The tour in support of the album is viewed by most Mellencamp fans as his defining moment as a live performer.
The album has more in common with American Fool than The Lonesome Jubilee, yet lyrically, he was expanding his themes to encompass world events (which he would continue to do with his next few albums) on songs like the epic “Now More Than Ever” (a deserving anthem he should perform regularly), “Last Chance,” and “Love and Happiness.” Deep cuts like “Melting Pot” (download) are uneven musically, but wind up offering a whimsical alternate route, while the dreamy and atmospheric “Last Chance” is an homage of sorts to Roy Orbison. However, at the end of the day, the delight of the perfect pop tune could still be heard on amorous “Again Tonight” and the jolting “Get a Leg Up” (download) showing that when you least expect it, a guy can still plug in the guitar and find his way home.
Mellencamp directed this film from a Larry McMurtry screenplay. For the soundtrack, he brought together a varied group of artists for what I believe is one of the first releases, along with Uncle Tupelo’s debut, to embody the alternative country movement which would later be defined by artists such as Whiskeytown (and its primary writer Ryan Adams) and The Old 97’s. The album consists of a collection of wonderfully sincere songs with a country flavor performed with hell bent rock n’ roll attitude. Larry Crane’s “Whiskey Burnin'” is one of the definitive examples of the genre, while the Mellencamp-penned “Sweet Suzanne” could have been a huge hit for him if he had kept it for a solo album instead of recording it with Buzzin’ Cousins (consisting of Mellencamp, Dwight Yoakam, James McMurtry, Joe Ely and John Prine). Ironically, this performance garnered them a CMA nomination in 1992 for Vocal Event of the Year. There are two other songs performed by Mellencamp: the bracing “It Don’t Scare Me None” (download) and the sincere “Nothing’s For Free,” both written by Larry Crane. The album is long out of print, but can be found cheaply on many used CD sites, and I guarantee you it’ll be one of the best purchases you’ll ever make — it showcases a wonderful blend of rock, country and bluegrass numbers that will etch themselves into your consciousness.
During every artist’s career, he hits a stride — a point where he sees everything with a clarity that allows his art to come into focus effortlessly. Human Wheels is an album that evokes a warm vintage feeling of nostalgia while simultaneously being the most emotionally concise and current record of Mellencamp’s career, and in my opinion, is John Mellencamp’s masterpiece. I know I said the same thing about Scarecrow, but for me, this is his best top-to-bottom work. Whether it’s the down-on-his-luck-character of “Junior,” the entrapment of complacency in “Beige to Beige,” or the journey of the everyman seeking the next level of enlightenment on “To the River,” these songs ring true and are embroidered and thematically connected beautifully through ten picturesque paintings. Mellencamp has always induced intense feelings of vulnerability and wistfulness, but on Human Wheels, the stakes are elevated.
On Mellencamp’s previous work, there was a vast amount of nostalgia with a yearning for better days and a struggle with internal strife. On Human Wheels, Mellencamp tackles these issues head on, and doesn’t relent through forty-five hard-driving minutes. The production and lyrics are have a widescreen effect, and to date, they remain his richest and most realized. Another key element to the album’s success was the band. The majority of the group had been performing with Mellencamp for close to a decade, and as a result, they played like a well-oiled machine. Human Wheels demonstrates more than their virtuosity — it is their definitive imprint on Mellencamp’s catalog. The immediacy of their power as a cohesive unit elevates the understated lyrics of “Suzanne and the Jewels” and “French Shoes”; the pummeling heart-on-its-sleeve “What If I Came Knocking” didn’t crack the Top Ten, but to this day when performed in concert, you feel its protagonist’s rage through the sharp sway of the band. John Cascella’s organ is superbly subtle on “Sweet Evening Breeze” (download) complementing a lyric that is nostalgic and almost intrusive, but the perfectly textured instrumentation makes it hauntingly exquisite. The violent domestic tale “Case 795 (The Family)” (download) is one of the two greatest non-singles of Mellencamp’s career (see Cuttin’ Heads for the other one). It perfectly melds a lyric Dylan would be proud to call his own with the aural vastness of U2, resulting in the listener sensing the wreckage and conflict of the storyline.
Throughout, the music and lyrics are merciless, mesmeric and tranquil. The full-throated passion delivered on each of these ten forward-thinking tracks found an artist who had done more than evolve as a human, but one pondering about life’s mysteries. During the album’s opener, “When Jesus Left Birmingham,” Mellencamp revisits his biggest hit as he and the band chant the refrain from “Jack & Diane”: “So let it rock, let it roll, let the Bible Belt come and save my soul.” It’s key that he reiterates these lyrics and not the one about holding “onto sixteen as long as you can.” This isn’t about yesterday or today but tomorrow. By this point in his career, Mellencamp had taken his audience on an expedition with his songs and albums, but on Human Wheels, the songs urge one to look inward for faith and conversion. This isn’t about a temporary excursion, but about making long-term maximum impact in your life. These aren’t mere stories, but lessons being told of human wheels that go…well, you guessed it, round and round. The question is, are we going to allow them to rule our lives, or will we steer the ride of life?
Sadly, Human Wheels proved the end of an era for John Mellencamp. The band that helped create his most articulate and diverse music would never record together again. John Cascella, accordion and organ player, died unexpectedly in the fall of 1992, and this album features his last recordings. The album is dedicated to his memory, and after one more tour, the majority of those who helped meld this masterpiece went their separate ways.
Disappointed with the sales performance of Human Wheels, Mellencamp dared his record company into full-on promotion with a gritty collection of nine garage rock songs (which were literally recorded in the garage) and released nine short months after Human Wheels. In the previous decade, Mellencamp’s albums had become easily identifiable musically, but on Dance Naked, he turns the tables, abandoning the multi-instrumental approach for minimalism: guitars, bass, drums and the occasional organ are the only instruments found on the record. When this album came out, everyone (including numerous critics) complained about its 29-minute length.
The opening lines of “Dance Naked” serve as an invite to the listener to kick off their shoes, let their hair down and “spin round and round.” More than a carnal exploration, it’s more of a dialogue of the senses, and could be interpreted as Mellencamp inviting his listener to dig deeper into the fan/artist relationship if we’ll accept him and his music as they are. The lyrics are simplistic but performed and sung with a conviction that only Mellencamp could execute and make credible. Regardless of length, the unexpected raw intimacy of these songs make this a defining, if undervalued album. The longest song, “The Breakout,” clocks in at 3:43, with most of the tunes wavering around the three-minute mark. The effortlessness of this record is remarkable; it makes you wonder why certain artists feel the need to spend months and sometime years perfecting an album. “Brothers” is classic Mellencamp, a song about internal family strife that wouldn’t have been out of place on Human Wheels with a jaunty backbeat. “Too Much to Think About” (download) and “The Big Jack” are guitar-inflected jams reminiscent of what Buddy Holly would have sounded like if he had lived, while “L.U.V.” (download) is the album’s most polished tune. For an album best known for the Van Morrison cover “Wild Night (Mellencamp’s his last Top 10 hit), it’s far better lyrically than anyone has even given it credit for.
Dance Naked touches on the themes of Human Wheels, but it was recorded with the fervor and cocky snarl of Uh-Huh a decade earlier. Mellencamp found a happy musical medium that, to date, has proved to be his last great unadulterated rock n’ roll album. The minimalist rawness of the production and songwriting allows these songs to breathe. Dance Naked found John Mellencamp reborn as a rocker, but the rebirth was short-lived. Mere weeks into the tour, Mellencamp had a minor heart attack and didn’t even know it until a month later, when the rest of the tour was scrapped. Aside from select club shows in the Midwest in 1995, during which he rocked out to ’50s and ’60s classics, it would be close to two years before he was heard from again.
After a life-altering health scare, John Mellencamp got back to work on new music with an eye toward taking his art to that next level. When Mr. Happy Go Lucky finally appeared in stores in September 1996, it became apparent this was a very different John Mellencamp than we had become accustomed to hearing. Mr. Happy Go Lucky was heralded as a daring album from an artist who had faced death, only to come back and completely reinvent himself. While I agree, I find this album to be a largely unsatisfying listening experience. It was a necessary voyage for Mellencamp, and I remember being in awe of the widescreen sonic backbeats, but I felt as if something was missing. In place of Kenny Aronoff’s driving drums were calculated, programmed backbeats, which while current and cool, still left most listeners in the cold. The album is undeniably an excursion down the road less traveled, but there is one underlying problem: At its core, Mr. Happy Go Lucky isn’t a John Mellencamp album. Instead of soaring pop melodies and four-chord guitar riffs, Mellencamp purposely tried to make a record you could dance to. I’m not really sure if he succeeded.
The lead track, “Jerry,” attacks you with impressive layered instrumentation that sets the stage for the record and is followed by the monstrous lead single, “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First).” Love or hate John Mellencamp, he has one career-defining single on every album. “Just Another Day,” the album’s second single, is a tuneful departure and a success for Mellencamp who, at this point, appears to have created an album that defines who he is as an artist while simultaneously pushing himself out of his comfort zone.
However, the rest of the album is a disjointed affair. From “This May Not Be the End of the World” (download) to the album’s final track, “Life Is Hard,” one gets the impression that Mellencamp spent more time on the music than the lyrics. Distortion-orchestra guitars paired with hip-hop beats, while fascinating to listen to, don’t warrant repeat listens. The themes and stories he tells here are fascinating, but they lack the emotional depth of his previous work. The bravado that permeated his songs between ’82 and ’94 is sadly missing here. “Circling Around the Moon” and “Large World Turning” are as bombastic as their titles suggest, and while the songs are lyrically amongst Mellencamp’s best, they would probably have been better-suited to more refined rustic arrangements. “Life Is Hard” is a wonderful mashup encompassing bashing beats, but ultimately, the lyrics fall flat.
The one track from the album’s latter half that carries a whiff of oomph is “The Full Catastrophe” (download), with its intense electric vibe and Middle Eastern flavor. Mellencamp was not a stranger to layered arrangements, but instead of R&B, blues and roots music, Mr. Happy Go Lucky is drowned out by undistinguished beats and banal clatter, and remains an admirable misstep.
After close to two decades with Mercury/Polygram, Mellencamp decided to jump ship for what he thought would be a more artist-focused label in Sony. Ironically, Sony dropped the ball and his latest rebirth, the self-titled John Mellencamp, released in October 1998, didn’t even crack the Top 40 — it debuted at #41 and dropped from there. Labels weren’t the only change for Mellencamp in 1998. John Mellencamp would be the first album in close to two decades recorded without drummer Kenny Aronoff, who had been the one constant — and, in my opinion the defining element — of Mellencamp’s core sound. John Mellencamp is the antithesis of Mr. Happy Go Lucky: a more musically coherent album with the acoustic guitar leading the way. Despite a return to his roots, it once again lacks the emotional depth of his previous work. It also lacks the bigger-than-life backbeat Aronoff provided for so many years. This was the first album Mellencamp had recorded without Aronoff in nearly two decades, and it shows. What was supposed to be a creative rebirth proved to be a misfire.
The album, while admirable, lacks focus. “Positively Crazy” is a restrained, brooding ballad, but the lyrics feel lethargic even if the production is nothing short of magnificent. The narrative “It All Comes True” is reminiscent of Richard Marx’s “Hazard.” “Break Me Off Some” sounds like an outtake from Mr. Happy Go Lucky, but is ultimately a throwaway track. “Summer of Love” has a title that jumps out at you, suggesting quintessential Mellencamp, but it’s not. “Days of Farewell” ends the album on a sour and uninspiring note. The spiritual renewal and exploration he evoked so magically on “When Jesus Left Birmingham” is missing here. This is where an outside producer would have come in handy, and possibly helped Mellencamp to push himself, rewrite the song, or beg Kenny Aronoff back into the studio.
The album is not quite as bleak as I’ve made it out to be. The two singles, “Your Life Is Now” and “I’m Not Running Anymore,” are quintessential Mellencamp. “Miss Missy” (download) has a boogie stomp and harp blowing that makes you smile, while “Where the World Began” is the album’s intransigent track, embodying Mellencamp at his best. “Chance Meeting at the Tarantula” (download) is a new discovery; I had overlooked it for close to a decade before revisiting this album, proving that we’re all guilty of overlooking gems on albums. His self-titled rebirth is by no means a bad album, but it’s a drifting, mixed affair at best.
When Mellencamp left Mercury Records in 1997, part of the deal was that he deliver two hits compilations. To this day, I will never understand the release of The Best That I Could Do, as it only covered his career through 1987 and only utilized 58 minutes of disc space. The rumor was Mellencamp’s contract agreement for a “Hits” record only extended to the material through 1987 — oh, to have been the lawyer who negotiated that one. However, to cover the second volume, Mellencamp chose the road less traveled, got creative and released a disc full of acoustic reworkings of some of his preeminent material along with a few covers. Aside from three Scarecrow tracks, the rest of the songs are culled from his 1989 to 1996 songbook, and provide a look at the other side of many classic deep cuts that people have largely disregarded.
The real standouts on the collection are “Between a Laugh and a Tear” and “Minutes to Memories.” With an artist like John Mellencamp, we get too comfortable with the contagious and familiar FM hits and let a song like “Between a Laugh and a Tear” escape notice. This version is restrained and transcendent with a haunting vocal, a pristine acoustic guitar and a hint of eeriness in the background. This isn’t just the best track on Rough Harvest, but is one of the definitive songs of Mellencamp’s career. “Minutes to Memories” showcases a raw electric guitar, while the violin is embroidered with refinement that stands right next to the studio version. “Key West Intermezzo” shines with a melancholy arrangement, while “Rain on the Scarecrow”‘ features a more restrained and rustic performance that I think demonstrates what visionaries Mellencamp and longtime guitarist and co-producer Mike Wanchic truly are.
Rough Harvest also showcases two ingenious covers, Bob Dylan’s “Farewell To Angelina” and the traditional “In My Time of Dying” (download), which encompass the same themes found throughout most of Mellencamp’s material over his entire career. The album concludes with a live cut of “Wild Night” and the studio version of “Under The Boardwalk,” an infamous B-side. These minimal yet potent arrangements allow the songs to breathe while the lyrics shine proving that Mellencamp’s output is far weightier than anyone gives him credit for. This is easily the greatest alternate path any mainstream artist has ever done for a contract fulfillment.
After a three-year absence, Mellencamp returned with Cuttin’ Heads, an effort geared more to his strengths, and in many ways a back-to-basics recording for him — even if the landscape isn’t as vast musically. He doesn’t gain any new ground here, but this is easily his most consistent batch of songs since Dance Naked. “Cuttin’ Heads” is a racially provocative leadoff track, featuring Chuck D of Public Enemy, and while Mellencamp has always been an advocate of civil rights, he blew the doors wide open here with stark and controversial lyrics. The racial gloom turns into sensual ecstasy with “Peaceful World,” a single that isn’t just a home run but a grand slam. I’m surprised that in the wake of 9/11, people did not embrace this song more profoundly, but the truth may have stung a bit too much for them. I still believe this is one of his greatest achievements as a songwriter and producer.
“Deep Blue Heart” wouldn’t be out of place on Big Daddy with its restrained instrumentation, while “Crazy Island” (download) is the other greatest non-single of his career (next to 1993’s “The Family”). I can’t believe that Sony didn’t jump all over this one but alas, since the album was released in the weeks following September 11th, this may have proven too difficult of a track to push to conservative FM stations. The pop-flavored acoustic ditty “Women Seem” is possibly art imitating life and once again, the cockiness is hidden in the lyrics, but it feels completely sincere while the reggae flavored “Shy” is as groovy as it is sexual. The album’s final track, “In Our Lives,” is a return to form. His final tracks on his last few albums felt rushed, but here Mellencamp delivers.
After a few musical detours, Mellencamp once again embraces the pastoral sounds of his past and expands on the themes that formed the basis of his catalog. Cuttin’ Heads isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s an underappreciated album in the Mellencamp cannon that paints a sometimes harsh picture of the contradictions of the American dream.
In June of 2002, Mellencamp’s longtime friend and writer, Timothy White, died unexpectedly. White had always been Mellencamp’s biggest advocate in the press and was a widely admired man in an industry filled with unsavory characters. At the memorial service, Mellencamp performed a version of Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway” that left most in jaws in attendance on the floor. It’s important to note that at this point, a mere nine months after the release of Cuttin’ Heads, Mellencamp felt he was divorced from Sony and that no further recordings would be made for them. Sony let Cuttin’ Heads die an undignified death, and what was Mellencamp’s best record in quite some time was unceremoniously sent to the cutout bins. However, someone at Sony saw the White tribute performance and approached Mellencamp about recording a roots album.
Mellencamp’s music has always been synonymous with music largely inspired by American soul, rhythm and blues. On Trouble No More, he’s peeling the layers off and going back to the original folk and blues influences that were the seeds of rock n’ roll. He mixes the raw gusto of rock n’ roll performed in Delta-style renderings with Dixieland jazz and soulful flavors added into a package that is distinctively Americana and definitively John Mellencamp.
Ironically, when you hear songs like “Diamond Joe,” the sounds are implausibly fresh, and wouldn’t be out of place on any Mellencamp album. Then there’s “John The Revelator,” which finds Mellencamp unleashing his inner bluesman. Embracing the political spirit of Woody Guthrie, Mellencamp condenses the moral enigma that is America into “To Washington” (download), a scathing attack on the Bush administration; regardless of your political beliefs, you have to admire his passion. Most surprising was the inclusion of a Lucinda Williams track, the yearning, Appalachian-influenced “Lafayette,” which may be one of the most shadowy tunes in both Mellencamp’s and Lucinda’s catalog. Once again, it revealed itself to me this time around and I now have to go out and find her 1980 album, Happy Woman Blues. The most archetypal song on the album is “Teardrops Will Fall,” which, for the first time since Human Wheels, evokes the model John Mellencamp sound with accordion and all. He finds a perfect balance with one foot steeped in tradition and another taking this music into the 21st century.
During this time, Mellencamp had all but given up on the music industry and was not actively writing or recording. Ironically, in a twist of fate, these songs helped him fill a void. They reinvigorated him, and you can hear it in the performances; I only wish he had launched a proper tour in support of this album. It is a fundamental lesson in the history of rock & roll to always dig deeper than those who influenced you, because even though the forefathers of rhythm, blues and soul may be gone, they continue to inspire and transform. What Mellencamp did so successfully with this collection is find a way to effectively transmute and relate the experience of these songs to the current generation. These twelve songs embody a type of secular testifying not found on today’s pop records, and even though dozens of albums have sold more copies than Trouble No More, this is an album that will be listened to years from now and as a result, someone will page back to the true origins of rock n’ roll and discover something profound and real.
Greatest hits records usually aren’t included in these guides, but I am mentioning this one for two specific reasons. The first being that after the underwhelming The Best That I Could Do, Words & Music does “Greatest Hits” albums proud. Every single Top 40 hit of Mellencamp’s career is here, along with many of the essential album tracks. Only “Minutes to Memories” (a hit at Mainstream Rock stations) is missing. It encompasses thirty-five classic hits and is one of the definitive “Hits” collections available by any act of the last thirty years. However, what pushes this collection over the top is the inclusion of two stellar new tracks: the eye-opening tolerance-based “Walk Tall” and the virtuous “Thank You” (download). Both songs are framed with the acoustic guitar, but surprisingly, producer Babyface provides a wonderful wall of organic sounds that is definitively John Mellencamp with maybe his strongest one-two punch of original songs in over a decade. If you are reading this and are not sure where to start with your collection, this is the perfect album to whet your appetite.
Released in January 2007, Freedom’s Road is a dark, bleak and desolate survey of the American landscape. This is an album I find myself enjoying when forcing myself to listen to it, but one I tend not to think about afterwards. Those who paid attention to this album could be divided into two camps: people who hated it based on hearing “Our Country” a million times, and people who were only aware of it because they had heard “Our Country” a million times. The album only sold a few hundred thousand copies, so I’m not sure if the extensive campaign for “Our Country” worked, but sadly, for some, it hindered their ability to listen to this album with open ears. Most of the songs are innocuous, which is the album’s downfall. The rich production should be heralded, even if the individual songs do not resonate. “Forgiveness” harkens back to 1998’s “Positively Crazy” which has elements I enjoy, but ultimately, while it’s close, it doesn’t quite light the cigar. His vernacular on songs like “Our Country,” “Someday,” and “My Aeroplane” is anemic and is missing the peek-a-boo vibrancy his ’80s classics had — before, even though a lyric may have been clichÃ©d, it was easy to fall for it hook, line and sinker. The music is raw and real, but the lyrics feel like first drafts.
With all that being said, the album does have some devastatingly intense songs. “Ghost Towns Along the Highway” never leaped out at me, but after seeing it performed live recently, it suddenly speaks volumes to me. On record I have a new appreciation for the layered instrumentation, which goes to prove how vital the live performance is to helping people not just discover records, but forcing them to view the songs in an entirely different light. “Rural Route” (download), like “The Family” from 1993’s Human Wheels, may be the album’s definitive cut. The album’s final track, “Heaven Is a Lonely Place” (download) is an anticlimactic ending, until you realize it’s a twelve-minute track. After a few minutes of silence and right before the eight-minute mark, another song appears: “Rodeo Clown,” an overpowering revelation. Mellencamp intentionally included it as a bonus track so as to not warrant extra attention from rightwing conservatives, but ironically, it might be the best song on Freedom’s Road. Obviously Mellencamp is passionate about politics, and here his emotion is boiling — something missing from the delivery on most of the album. The fervent delivery of “Rodeo Clown” demonstrates that Mellencamp isn’t retiring anytime soon — it’s just a shame the album’s most affecting song is hidden.
The Company We Keep (2008)
Despite my disappointment in Freedom’s Road, in November of 2007 I watched Mellencamp perform four new songs from his upcoming 2008 disc, The Company We Keep, produced by T-Bone Burnett. It will hopefully see release around the same time he gets inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. “If I Die Sudden” reminds me of the type of song Dylan would have performed with the Band; “Young Without Lovers” had the crowd singing along; and the acoustic “Ride Back Home (Hey Jesus)” proves he still is a great lyricist who appears to have rediscovered his muse.
“Jena,” which has made the YouTube rounds, finds Mellencamp at his best and most provocative in fifteen years. Mellencamp is pissed, provoked and passionate in his delivery of these new songs, just like he is on “Rodeo Clown,” and if these performances are any indication, it may lead to his best record in well over a decade. He’s questioning the state of the world and wondering if sanity will prevail. He doesn’t have an answer, but what he does have is a passion for these songs. If the studio versions are half as determined, we are in for one hell of an album — and more importantly, it’ll continue our ride along with John Mellencamp through American stories of morally conflicted individuals who hide out in small towns, along lost highways, and behind ideals we hope aren’t an illusion but all too often are.