By Anthony Kuzminski
On Monday March 10th, 2008 John Mellencamp will be inducted to the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame. Now, I must admit to you, the Rock Hall is a sham of sorts in my mind and ultimately is not really representative of truly important and influential artists (if it was all of the following would be included- Alice Cooper, the E Street Band, Steve Miller, Motorhead, KISS, Rush, the New York Dolls, Yes, Link Wray, Captain Beefheart, Faces, Joy Division, J. Geils Band, Todd Rundgren, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, Chicago, Judas Priest, Jimmy Cliff, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, ELO, Heart, Iron Maiden, Joan Jett, The MC5, Metallica, Def Leppard...OK, you get the point). Regardless of how I feel, it's a nice pat on the back for John Mellencamp. Mellencamp has never received the respect he deserves and he's a vastly under appreciated artist who will finally get his due at the rock hall. In honor of his induction, here's a complete album guide to him which originally ran on the brilliant and biting Popdose blog a few months back. I'm republishing it here with extensive YouTube links for your enjoyment.
Act I: Johnny Cougar
Chestnut Street Incident(1976)
I remember back in the 1980’s finding a cassette of this album 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-star. This album was despised and I think I even read one review which claimed this was one of the worse albums ever made. At the time, I thought the writer was being overly harsh; however I was lacking the history of the album’s genesis.
By now we’ve all heard the story of how basically Mellencamp sold his soul to the devil, who in this case happened to be David Bowie’s manager, Tony DeFries. Besides christening Mellencamp with the better stage name of “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 In retrospect Chestnut is a fascinating historical document but nothing more.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 to this day still try and force down the public’s throat where the artist performing on it is merely a puppet for their dreams of financial glories 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 from MCA. Despite the ill intentions of DeFries trying to sell something that appeared unoriginal, there are good moments on Chestnut, especially on the track “Dream Killin’ Town” which is a template that Mellencamp would expand on later with “Small Town” and other heartland rockers. The melody is solid 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” 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 making the die-hard fans continue to line the pockets of a man who almost destroyed Mellencamp’s career before it started.
The Kid Inside (1977)
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 and was scraped up 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. Whether it was on record shelves or not in 1977 doesn’t seem to matter because it’s widely available today much to the chagrin of Mellencamp. When I originally found this album on cassette back in 1989, I listened to it once and put it back on the shelf where it remained for all eternity. 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 back by too much macho cockiness (“Take What You Want”). Songs like “Cheap Shot” feel like a Billy Joel outtake 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” starts out well admirably with a cinematic eeriness until a saxophone comes in from out of nowhere during the chorus completely destroying what it had going for it. A few of these songs, including “Too Young To Live” have some smoldering guitars and grandiose drums, but then a saxophone comes in from out of nowhere making them laughable. The production on these songs is downright horrid (something Bruce Springsteen also experienced on his first two albums). The disappointing aspect of the production value 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.
A Biography (1978)
After a bad experience with DeFries, Mellencamp (or Cougar depending on how you want to refer to him) went to London where he was fortunately signed to the small label of Riva. He got down to business in London recording A Biography and upon it’s 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 incorporate 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 on John Cougar as you can hear the drum stick tapping their way before the soaring intro). There were alternate recordings of “I Need A Lover” recorded for this album but they never saw the light of day, even on the 2005 reissue. I’m hoping it shows up on the eventual and long delayed box set Mellencamp has been talking about for years. This album actually has a much rawer edge to it than either of the albums that followed. The guitars are cranked up loud for “Born Reckless” and “Night Slumming” where Cougar is demonstrating his best Rolling Stones impression ala “It’s Only Rock N’ Roll”. “Alley of the Angels” is shooting for the stars like Springsteen did with “Jungleland” and even though Mellencamp comes nowhere near close to capturing the listener’s imagination that profoundly, it’s still a damn fine tune. The songs on A Biography are crude, under produced and raw, which adds to the albums allure. It shows that as soon as Mellencamp got away from DeFries and the god-awful saxophone solos he did indeed have a knack for music. This is a better album than most would imagine and it rightfully available now for everyone to enjoy even if it’s not an essential album.
Act II: John Cougar
John Cougar (1979)
Based on the minor success of “I Need A Lover” overseas, Riva records made sure that it was included on his 1979 follow-up, simply entitled John Cougar. “I Need A Lover” barely cracked the Top-40 (#28) but it gave him enough attention to have the album chart (#64) and eventually record another album. While there is nothing horrid on the album, “I Need A Lover” aside, there’s not much that stands out even on multiple listens. Almost every track sounds equally dated; “A Little Night Dancin’” is a nice little pop-wise number, but “Small Paradise” relies on cliché’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 takes another pop detour.
Nothin’ Matters and What If it Did (1980)
This is where John Cougar began to define his voice. Ironically this was the only album of his I never owned on compact disc before the remastered version appeared in 2005. 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” gets things off to a sweltering start with a song that lyrically could be related once again to Springsteen’s 70’s 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 as one may hope. The keyboards on “Don’t Misunderstand Me” are especially painful to listen to and may want you to gouge your eyes out. However, “Cheap Shot” is eerily relevant to the here and now as we are witnessing the fall of record companies and it’s a simplified song that is stupendous if for nothing else than the swagger with which Cougar delivers it. I almost wonder why he doesn’t add it to his concerts as an opening song. The 2005 remaster included the bonus track, “Latest Game” which is a leftover track from the American Fool sessions, which ironically is as good as most of the American Fool tracks and better than most of his first three Riva albums. It’s a welcome addition to this disc and almost makes this worthy of purchasing. Even though the album is wildly erratic, it set the stage for what eventually break Mellencamp into the mainstream.
American Fool (1982)
In the music world of today, an act like U2 would have been given the ax after their second album. Today’s record companies put too much value on the bottom dollar and very little on artistic development. Many artists take their time finding their voice, and it often takes them at least three albums to find their true voice and stride. John Mellencamp’s ride to the top was a little longer. His big break through was 1982’s American Fool, his sixth album. Even back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, even though artists may have been afforded two or three chances, six is almost unheard of. It’s also 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 at number one 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 affair and producer Don Gehman gave the album a straight ahead rock focus with impressive pop sensibilities. The songs speak for themselves and still sound great today. “Thundering Hearts” makes you heartbeat race led by the pinpoint thundering drums of Kenny Arnoff. The sublime “Weakest Moments” is an insightful flipside to the poppy “Jack & Diane”, it’s another ode to love but in the last minute, a giant chorus comes in to accentuate the title. Cougar’s vocal delivery is stunning and for the first time in his career, could evoke chills and vulnerability. “Close Enough” and “China Girl” are a cliché rockers but the backing band led by guitarist Larry Crane and drummer Kenny Arnoff make the song ascend to heights studio musicians could never muster. 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 of the album and it’s far better than I ever remembered, this isn’t a great album but it’s a very undervalued album. The bonus track on the remaster, “American Fool” is a very welcomed addition as it was left off the original release by the record company. It actually fleshes the album out and gives it 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 III: John Cougar Mellencamp
This is the album that brought Cougar his proper surname (Mellencamp) and credibility as an artist. He substantiated himself to be more than a pop star but one who had a pulse on the American consciousness with tracks like “Crumblin’ Down” and “Pink Houses”. “Authority Song” has one of the absolute opening riffs of the last twenty-five years and “Play Guitar” is arguably the catchiest song of the bunch and it’s a mystery as to why it was never issued as a single. He proved to everyone that he is a no nonsense rocker with an album recorded in a brief 16 days. In fact I forgot how solid and rocking this album was until I revisited it. 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 industries many one-hit wonders. Uh-Huh showed more than a pop star wanting to make it big but an artist slowly defining his voice and the landscape of music he wanted to tackle. “Crumblin’ Down” “Pink Houses” and “Authority Song” still tear down arenas to this day. The album even has arguably a career defining lyrics that can sum up who John Mellencamp wanted to be and still is today…”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 does not sound dated in any way and could have been recorded just a few months ago. What makes Scarecrow an unqualified masterpiece was 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 deep and recorded one of the defining records of the 80’s. To this day, the majority of this album is still performed live. It’s the soundtrack to Middle America the same way Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born To Run were to lower class New Jersey. Mellencamp transcends all musical boundaries with an album that is as raw as it is rustic. Listening to it makes one feel like they are 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”) and the pure escapism that music gives to the soul (“Rumbleseat”, “ROCK In The USA”) are all showcased in a rousing anthemic album one can raise their fist to when listening to.
“Between A Laugh & A Tear” isn’t as poetic as Dylan or Springsteen, but its simplicity makes it that much more digestible to the public. Mellencamp was often criticized for not having his lyrics be as profound or poetic as the two aforementioned artists here, but what everyone tends to overlook is the fact that every person who do what they do best and instead of Mellencamp 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 & A Tear” demonstrates this better than anything else in his catalog of songs.
There are songs of hope, redemption, anguish and searching for truth in the heartland of Reagan's America here and in my opinion (and I know millions will disagree with me) this was the album Springsteen should have made with Born In The USA.
The Lonesome Jubilee (1987)
Two-years after the countrified sounds on Scarecrow blasted across the American FM dial, Mellencamp returned with an album that continued to cultivate his sound. The albums sound 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 country but back in 1987, rock radio gladly embraced it. The musical texture on The Lonesome Jubilee is unlike anything else released in 1987 and it's almost shocking this album yielded three top-fifteen hits. The album was heralded as a masterpiece upon its release something I agree with today. Producer Don Gehman gives the album a natural and earthy feeling to it. 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 listened to 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, "Blues From The Front Porch" is a bluegrass number where Mellencamp does not even lend vocals. It's a lost gem and a welcomed one. This song would not have been out of place on 2003's Trouble No More, his bluegrass record. Toby Myers, Pat Peterson and Crystal Taliefero lend their vocal stylings to this revelatory song.
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 was "The Real Life". I was shocked to find as many hidden gems as I did when I revisited this album; "Down & 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 carefree nature of “Hotdogs & Hamburgers”. He has a treasure chest of goodies here on this one album and 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 which should be remembered for songs like these instead of a car spokesman.
Big Daddy (1989)
In the spring of 1989, Big Daddy was quickly rising to the top of the charts when "Pop Singer" cracked the top-twenty. Then all of a sudden, the album and single disappeared without a trace. Mellencamp chose to not promote his final album with the name of "Cougar" attached to it. It's a shame he chose not to because it’s the diamond in the rough of his catalog. It's easy to dismiss the record as it's a much more subdued and melancholy tone to it which does not quite radiate the same outward thrashing manner. OK, shoot me for using another Springsteen comparison but 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 it's release and aside from an appearance on David Letterman, his lone support for the album were videos for "Pop Singer" and the second single, "Jackie Brown", which just missed cracking the Top-40. Here was a man who deep down did not have peace of mind, no matter how much success he had achieved. He was still unfulfilled. Over the years, I have re-discovered Big Daddy on more than one occasion. "To Live", "Void In My Heart", "Mansions In Heaven" all find an artist in crisis yearning for simpler times and a unified family. He has struggled with his demons and in 1989, had not yet overcome them.
A few years back, I saw Mellencamp perform "Big Daddy of Them All" acoustically in concert, with a sped up tempo, and the arrangement shed a completely new light upon it. He claims he wrote it about someone he knew, but I feel the character he based it on was autobiographical. This was the album where nothing was left concealed. Even despite the personal nature of the album, he couldn’t go without encompassing a commentary of the state of America with a shot at Ronald Reagan, who had just left office mere months earlier, with "Country Gentleman". The issue of poverty is addressed on “Jackie Brown” while “Martha Say” shows a woman with angst walk to the beat of her own drummer while Kenny Arnoff pummels his drum sticks 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 for its minimalism are missing out. This is a noteworthy album of 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 and when he returned…he was a new man in more than one way.
Act IV: John Mellencamp
Whenever We Wanted (1991)
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 to be 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 heartland music he had perfected over his last three albums. Whenever We Wanted showcases 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 is not necessarily bad. Mellencamp took the pastoral sounds as far as he could go with Scarecrow, The Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy. Here the music is stripped to the bare minimum (or at least I thought it was until the release of Dance Naked). 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 organ to the guitar heavy record. 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 world views (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 & Happiness”. Deep cuts like “Melting Pot” are uneven musically but winds up being a whimsical alternate route while the dreamy and atmospheric “Last Chance” is an homage of sorts to Chris Isaak and 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” showing that when you least expect it, one can still plug in the guitar and find their way home.
Falling From Grace (1992 Soundtrack)
Mellencamp directed this film from a Larry McMurtry screenplay. For the soundtrack, he brought together a wide and varied group of artists for what is truly a revelatory and highly influential album and for this reason, I am including it in this Idiot’s Guide. The Falling From Grace soundtrack 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 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 under the name of 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” and the sincere “Nothing’s For Free” both written by Larry Crane. The soundtrack for Falling From Grace is wildly influential and showcases that Mellencamp, who produced the soundtrack, was much more hip and influential than anyone gives him credit for. The album is long out of print, but can be found cheaply on many used internet cd sites and I guarantee you it’ll be one of the best purchases you’ll ever make as it showcases a wonderful meld of rock, country and bluegrass numbers that will etch themselves into your consciousness.
Human Wheels (1993)
During every artists career they hit a stride where they see everything with a sense of clarity that allows their 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 his career and in my opinion Human Wheels is John Mellencamp’s masterpiece. I know I said the same thing about Scarecrow, but for me, this is his most unfailing 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 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 performed and written with a widescreen effect and to date they remain his richest and most realized. Another key element to the albums success was the penetrating band Mellencamp had built up to this point. The majority of them had been performing with Mellencamp for close to a decade and as a result they were hot-blooded musicians whose cumulative efforts were not just delivered with pinpoint thunder but with a vigor and bare-knuckle desertion. Human Wheels demonstrates more than their virtuosity but 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” to heights only a epic and assaulting band could dream of. 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 the infusion of rage its character feels through the sharp sway of the band. John Cascella’s organ is superbly subtle on “Sweet Evening Breeze” with 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)” 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 that results in the listener sensing the wreckage and conflict of the storyline.
John Mellencamp created a record that was discernible and consciously colossal. The music and lyrics are simultaneously merciless, mesmeric and tranquil. The full throated passion delivered on each of these ten thematically forward thinking tracks found an artist who had done more than evolve as a human, but one who also ponders about life’s evolution and 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…well you guessed it, that go 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 is the end of an era for John Mellencamp. The band that helped create his most articulate and diverse music would never record in this formation 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.
Dance Naked (1994)
Disappointed with the sales performance of Human Wheels, Mellencamp dared his record company for 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 become auditory landscapes that were easily identifiable but on Dance Naked he turns the tables where he abandoned the multi-instrument 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 this album was only 29-minutes long. As the CD age continued onwards purists and critics alike asked why acts wouldn’t consider releasing a much shorter albums and part of me thinks it’s because when Mellencamp did, they criticized him. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
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 in a more naked manner. 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, pop-wise 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 staggering and makes one wonder why certain artists feel the need to spend months and sometime years perfecting an album. “Brothers” is a classic Mellencamp about internal family strife that wouldn’t have been out of place on Human Wheels with a jaunty back beat. “Too Much To Think About” and “The Big Jack” are guitar-infected jams that remind me of what Buddy Holly would have sounded like if he had lived while “L.U.V.” is a discharging political artistic statement (and the album’s most polished tune). For an album best known for the Van Morrison cover “Wild Night”, providing Mellencamp with his last top-ten hit, it’s far more ambidextrous and elliptical lyrically than anyone has even given credit.
Dance Naked touches on the themes of Human Wheels but it was recorded with the fervor, onslaught and cockiest snarl since Uh-Huh a decade earlier. Mellencamp found a happy musical medium that to date 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 the rocker John Mellencamp reborn as a rocker, albeit, 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 where he rocked out to 50’s and 60’s classics, it would be close to two-years before he was heard from again.
Mr. Happy Go Lucky (1996)
After a life altering change in his lifestyle, John Mellencamp got back to work on new music with a lucid view on taking his art to that next level. When Mr. Happy Go Lucky finally appeared in stores in September of 1996, it became apparent this was a very different John Mellencamp than we had become accustomed to. Mr. Happy Go Lucky was heralded as a daring and reactionary album of an artist who had faced death only to come back and completely reinvent himself. While I agree with each of these conjectures, I find this album to be a largely unsatisfying listening experience. It was a necessary voyage for Mellencamp and I remember being in awe at the way the widescreen sonic backbeats spared from the stereo, but I felt as if something was missing. In place of Kenny Aronoff’s driving drums were calculated programmed back beats, while current and cool…left most listeners in the cold. The album is an unbelievable prodigious excursion down the road less traveled, but there is one underlying problem with all of this; 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 was trying to make a record that you could dance to. I’m not really sure if he succeeded but what I do know is that after a solid decade of revisiting this album time and time again, it is an esteemed excursion.
The lead track, “Jerry” attacks you with impressive layered instrumentation that works for setting the stage of the record and is followed by the monstrous lead single, “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)”. The evocative tunnel you enter when single kicks in is possibly one of my twenty-five favorite songs of the last fifteen years. 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 as Mellencamp, 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” to the album’s final well meaning track, “Life Is Hard” one gets the impression that Mellencamp spent more time on the music, instead of 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 emotional and lyrical depth of his previous work. The bravado that soaked 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 shined brighter in a refined rustic arrangement. “Life Is Hard” is a wonderful mash-up encompassing bashing beats, but ultimately the lyrics are domestic and monotonous.
The one track from the album’s latter half that permeates a whiff of oomph is “The Full Catastrophe” with its intense electric vibe and Middle Eastern flavor featuring an architecture of restorative and syncopated sounds. Mellencamp was not a stranger to monolithic layers of music, 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.
John Mellencamp (1998)
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. Record 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 was 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 that Kenny 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. Songs like “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” but is a pale comparison. “Break Me Off Some” sounds like an outtake from Mr. Happy Go Lucky but is ultimately a throw away track. “Summer of Love” has a title that jumps out at you thinking it would be quintessential Mellencamp, but it’s not. “Days of Farewell” end this downbeat album on a sour and uninspiring note. The spiritual renewal and exploration he evoked so magically on “When Jesus Left Birmingham” is devoid here. This is where an outside producer would have come in handy and possibly guided 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” has a boogie stomp and harp blowing that makes you smile endearingly while “Where The World Began” is the album’s intransigent track which embodies Mellencamp at his best. “Chance Meeting At The Tarantula” is a new discovery and why I love Idiot Guides to artists where I’m forced to reacquaint myself with the entire catalog. I had overlooked the mystical track 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, alienating and mixed affair at best.
Rough Harvest (1999)
When Mellencamp left Mercury Records in 1997, part of the deal was that he deliver two Greatest Hits records. 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 revelatory acoustic reworkings of some of his preeminent material and a few covers. Aside from three Scarecrow tracks, the rest of the songs are culled from his 1989 to 1996 songbook and provides one 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 & A Tear” escape from our memory. The luscious rendering here 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 the “Rain On The Scarecrow”’ features a more restrained and rustic performance that I think demonstrates what a spectacular visionary Mellencamp and long time 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” which encompasses 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.
Cuttin' Heads (2001)
After a three-year absence, Mellencamp returned with, Cuttin’ Heads, an effort more rooted in his strengths and in many ways is a back-to-basics recording for him even if the landscape isn’t as wide and 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 lead off track which features 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, lyrical and controversial depictions. The racial gloom turns into sensual ecstasy with “Peaceful World”, a single 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” 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 and send it soaring over the airwaves 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 dials. 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 and it’s impressive and convincing. His final tracks on his last few albums felt rushed with archaic and incomplete lyrics, but here Mellencamp delivers.
After a few musical detours, Mellencamp once again embraces the pastoral sounds of his past and expanding on the themes that formed the basis of his catalog in an uplifting fashion. Cuttin’ Heads isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a vastly ignored and underappreciated album in the Mellencamp cannon that paints a sometimes harsh picture of the contradictions of the American dream.
Trouble No More (2003)
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 the music industry filled with unsavory characters. At a memorial service he performed Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passway” that left most in attendance jaws 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 undeserving death and what was his best record in quite some time was unceremoniously sent to the cut out racks. However, someone at Sony saw the White tribute performance and approached Mellencamp about recording a roots flavored blues drenched 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 to the core 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 Dixie land jazz and soulful flavors added into a wrapped up package that is distinctively Americana and definitively John Mellencamp.
Ironically, when you hear songs like “Diamond Joe” it sounds 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 moral enigma that is America into “To Washington” a scathing attack on the Bush administration and regardless of what one thinks, you have to admire his passion. Most surprisingly, 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 for everyone to value.
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 bucolic 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 he found 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 centuries from now and as a result, someone will page back to the true origins of rock n’ roll and discover something profound and real.
Words & Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits (2004)
Greatest Hits records usually don’t get included in comprehensive discographies, 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 all of the essential album tracks. Only “Minutes To Memories” (a hit on Mainstream Rock Radio and in concert) 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”. Both songs are entrenched 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 Idiot Guide and are not sure where to start with your collection, this is the perfect album to wet your appetite.
Freedom's Road (2007)
Released in January 2007, Freedom’s Road is a dark, bleak and desolate tale of the American landscape. This is an album I find myself enjoying when forcing myself to listen to it, but one I ultimately never think about after I have listened to it. Those who paid attention to this album could be divided into two camps; those who hated it based on hearing “Our Country” a million times and those 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 eyes and ears. Most of the songs are innocuous, which is the album’s downfall. The rich pastoral 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 80’s classics had where even though a lyric may have been clichéd we fell for it hook, line and sinker. The music is raw and real, but the lyrics appear to me as first draft renderings lacking zealous delivery.
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 faint and layered instrumentation which goes to prove how vital the live performance is to helping people not just discover records but it forces them to view the songs in entirely different light. “Rural Route”, like “The Family” from 1993’s Human Wheels is a deep album cut that has a terse intensity in its southern swamp drenched hand-clapping tale that may be the album’s definitive cut. The albums final track, “Heaven Is A Lonely Place” 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, a hidden track; “Rodeo Clown” which is a overpowering revelation. Mellencamp intentionally included it as a bonus track so to not warrant extra attention from rightwing conservatives, but ironically, this is the most preeminent song on Freedom’s Road. Obviously Mellencamp is passionate about politics and here his emotion is brewing and boiling- something missing from the delivery on most of Freedom’s Road. The fervent delivery of “Rodeo Clown” demonstrates that Mellencamp isn’t retiring any time soon, it’s just a shame the most crashing and affecting song is hidden.
The Company We Keep (2008)
Despite my disappointment in Freedom’s Road, in November of 2007 I witnessed Mellencamp in concert where he performed 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 a few decades back with the Band…but only better. “Young Without Lovers” had the crowd singing along, while the acoustic “Ride Back Home (Hey Jesus)” proves he still is a great lyricist who appears to have rediscovered his muse. “Jena”, which has soared across You Tube, 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 events of our world and wondering if sanity will prevail. He doesn’t have an answer but what he does have is a passion for these songs which were harrowing and chock full of incendiary discharge. 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 with the artist John Mellencamp through American stories of morally conflicted individuals who hide out in ghost towns, lost highways, small towns and behind ideals we hope aren’t an illusion but all too often are.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer for Unrated Magazine and the antiMusic Network. He can be found at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.