It’s not often that you can sit down with one collection and get a complete overview of an artist’s career, but that’s exactly what you receive with John Mellencamp’s new box set, 1978-2012. In it are his 19 most significant albums, including the rare soundtrack to Mellencamp’s film directorial debut, Falling from Grace. Each CD has been repackaged in a cardboard case and the music sounds better than ever. This collection brings together all of the singer/songwriters albums from his days at Riva Records, Mercury Records, Columbia, Universal, Hear Music and Rounder Records.
Mellencamp’s early records are a mixed bag, at best. His first album released as just John Cougar came out on Riva in 1979. John Cougar is all over the place, with the artist trying to find a genre that suits him. Despite attempts in blue collar mainstream rock, disco, Rod Stewart 70 s sleaze and Meat Loaf ballads, Mellencamp began showing a knack for writing lyrics about everyday people and the issues that face. John Cougar went unnoticed. However, the album contains the song “I Need a Lover,” which Mellencamp had recorded a year earlier on A Biography, his third and final album under the moniker Johnny Cougar. Pat Benatar covered “I Need a Lover” and made a hit. Because of Benatar’s version, Mellencamp’s own version became a minor hit, as well.
John Cougar is followed with Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did. Produced by legendary guitarist Steve Cropper, this one is more focused in the mainstream rock of the 80s (think Benatar, Eddie Money and Michael Stanley), Mellencamp continues to grow as a writer. “Ain’t Even Done with the Night” and “This Time” are the best songs on the album, which is likely why they were the two singles. Around this time, Mellencamp began getting airplay on the FM dial and appearing on shows like American Bandstand and Solid Gold.
Mellencamp’s next album, American Fool, made him a star. It contains three hit songs, including a little ditty called “Jack and Diane,” and it gave him artistic freedom to steer the direction of his next record. 1983’s Uh-Huh, the first of his album’s to include his real name (he was billed as John Cougar Mellencamp) is a straight-up, ball-busting album that’s succinct and without any fat. We all know “Crumblin’ Down” and “Pink Houses,” from this album, but there are other exceptional songs, including “Warmer Place to Sleep” and the aching “Golden Gates.”
Uh-huh is a natural progression of American Fool’s meat and potatoes rock. The songs sound like populist anthems, but below the surface are Mellencamp’s leftist political views.
1985’s Scarecrow is not so subversive. Raw and angry, Mellencamp sings about the social issues that mean so much to him and he isn’t afraid to piss off people. With a country-tinged live sound, Scarecrow was the defining moment in Mellencamp’s career. The songwriting is focused; there isn’t a throwaway on this record. And the band, anchored by the masterful Kenny Aronoff on drums, is so tight; I’d go as far as to say they were the best band playing at the time.
After Scarecrow, Mellencamp goes completely country with The Lonesome Jubilee. Now a part of the Mercury Records label, Mellencamp introduced violins and accordion to his music, creating music that was 180 degrees different from the hair metal and teen pop that was dominant at end of the 80s. The Lonesome Jubilee has several hit singles, including the wonderful “Cherry Bomb,” and continues to influence country artists, at least with its sound, but not Mellencamp’s politics. During the tour supporting this album, Mellencamp became one of the most popular artists in the world, something that didn’t sit well with him.
Big Daddy came next in 1989. While it’s a worthy successor to The Lonesome Jubilee, it’s also the album with the song “Pop Singer,” the song that pissed off everyone, including some of Mellencamp’s most ardent fans. This is the one where the artist bitches about never wanting to be a pop singer. People looked at it as Mellencamp biting the hand that feeds him. However, by the singer’s own admission (in the latest Rolling Stone) he was getting restless and sick of the politics involved with muse making music. The song may have pissed off some people, but I don’t think Mellencamp gave a shit. “Pop Singer” is a throw away song and it kind of pisses me off that he even released it as a single. Big Daddy is full of rich material that deserved to be heard. At least now listeners can look back on this excellent record and hear it for its greatness.
The 90s arrived and Mellencamp began to pursue other interests, including painting and film. He finally ditched the Cougar and from that point forward was only known as John Mellencamp. His paintings grace the cover of his 1991 effort, Whatever We Wanted, a hard rocking album that was an attempt to recapture the immediacy of Uh-huh. There are some great songs on here, including “Love and Happiness” and “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied” and the musicianship, as always, is exceptional.
Mellencamp delved into filmmaking by directing and starring in the movie, Falling from Grace. The film featured a screenplay by Lonesome Dove author, Larry McMurtry, and also starred Mariel Hemingway and Claude Akins. Although it only received a limited release, the movie did get praise from some top critics. For the soundtrack, Mellencamp recorded new tracks and requested songs by his band mates and some of his country music friends, including Dwight Yoakam and John Prine.
As the 90s rolled on and grunge took over the mainstream, Mellencamp continued to put out excellent albums, even as his days of being a radio mainstay diminished. Human Wheels (1993) is a powerful record that contains the underrated title track, one of Mellencamp’s finest. Dance Naked features the surprise hit, “Wild Night,” a cover of the Van Morrison classic that’s a duet with Meshell Ndegeocello. Both albums are strong efforts, but the change in the direction of mainstream radio left Mellencamp out in the cold.
A heart attack at age 42 slowed down Mellencamp after the release of Dance Naked, but it only kept him out of the record studio for a little while. In 1996, he released Mr. Happy Go-Lucky, his final album for Mercury. On this album, Mellencamp branches out with his sound once again, using samples and electronic beats to propel the music forward. It’s a quality record, more consistent than I remember giving it credit for. We all remember “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)”, but other standout songs include “Jerry,” “This May Not Be The End Of The World” and “The Full Catastrophe.”
The end of the 90s saw Mellencamp jump to Columbia Records. His first album with them was the self-titled, John Mellencamp (1998). From this point forward, we begin to see his interest begin to wane. The songs are inconsistent and the albums don’t feel as focused. John Mellencamp has some quality tracks, “I’m Not Running Anymore” and “Eden is Burning” are standouts, but several of the songs feel like Mellencamp is going through the motions.
At the same time, Mercury released Rough Harvest. It contains new versions of some of Mellencamp’s favorite songs, stripped down and performed by his touring band. It’s an interesting diversion, especially to hear the stellar cover version of “Under the Boardwalk,” which originally saw the light of day on 1986.
Released just before 9/11 Cuttin’ Heads’ contains the lovely song, “Peaceful World,” a duet with india.arie. Cuttin’ Heads was followed by Trouble No More and the inconsistent Freedom Road. On all three albums you hear Mellencamp reaching, and coming up with some pretty tepid lyrics. Freedom Road includes “My Country,” the song he sold to Chevy Trucks. It made him a rich man, but it’s a pretty uninspired song.
It would seem that Mellencamp was done, out of creative juices. Lord knows it’s happened to more than one Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famer. But then he crossed paths with T Bone Burnett, the genius producer who’s worked with everyone from the BoDeans to Robert Plant, and supervised numerous Coen Brother movies. Burnett brought Mellencamp back to the basics of songwriting and produced Mellencamp’s two most recent albums, Life, Death, Love and Freedom and Trouble No More. Both are treasures on Americana and folk. Refreshing, alive and full of somber tales about the world, on these albums Mellencamp sings with a passion that recalls his greatest 80s material.
1978-2012 is a massive undertaking, should you decide to you want to own every single Mellencamp album. I suppose this isn’t for the casual fan but the diehards. Nevertheless, even those of us who discover they have 10 or more of his albums might consider buying it, especially the folks who still listen to CDs.
Oh wait, now you CAN possible own this massive CD collection. Popdose has one copy of the collection available to a lucky reader. What do you have to do, you ask? Simply answer the following question:
Name the musician I refer to in this post as the “anchor” of John Mellencamp’s band. Here’s a hint, he played vibes on the song “Jackie O.”
Email your answer to me, Scott Malchus@popdose.com, by 11:00 PM PT, Sunday 12/15/13. A winner will be chosen at random and notified by email.
Good luck, and as always, thanks for reading Popdose.