Only the rarest of talents have that admirable ability to defy musical definition, year after year, decade after decade. Just when you think you’ve got ’em pegged they come up with a cunning change in direction which throws you a disorientating body swerve.
In a recording career of more than 40 years, he has released under many names – Johnny Cougar, John Cougar, John Cougar Mellencamp, plain ol’ John Mellencamp – plus monikers bestowed on him by others (the contrary Lil’ Bastard tag under which he produced his records for a while).
The music has varied wildly in style and, at times, quality. There are the shin-kicking cocky rockers on American Fool; the introspective, balladic folk of Big Daddy; the down-home fiddles and mandolins that characterise The Lonesome Jubilee. But all through the hills and valleys of this fantastic journey, some of the roadside scenery remains constant.
At his best, Mellencamp is one of the greatest American storytellers, up there with John Steinbeck and Mark Twain. Americans would call him a ‘heartland rocker’, but that’s just an easy soundbite to throw out and unfairly lumps him in with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger. His lyrical ability can transport the listener from dusty front porch to cramped tenement block; from soda bar to jail cell.
It’s not all cloudless, widescreen Midwest skies, either. In Mellencamp’s America social injustice loiters behind every white picket fence. The notion of family loyalty runs deep, but the threat of betrayal lurks round every corner and in every shadow.
If anything, Mellencamp’s marriage to a supermodel, and mid-90s heart attack, sharpened his scalpel rather than seeing him settle back. His work has become more overtly political, through involvement in the long-running Farm Aid project, and songs such as Peaceful World, which became an inadvertent anthem for post-9/11 New York.
He nods frequently to his musical roots – R.O.C.K In The U.S.A. was subtitled A Salute To 60s Rock; stories have him forcing his band to learn dozens of classics before convening for pre-tour rehearsals, and for his 2003 release Trouble No More he dug deep into the great American songbook. He may not fit your definition of classic rock, but the records listed in this guide contain material by one of the most classic American rockers of our time.
This album perfectly showcased Mellencamp’s best narrative songwriting. His previous record, Whenever We Wanted, had cranked up the guitars, but on Human Wheels he chose to explore the human condition from darker, more oblique angles.
Opener When Jesus Left Birmingham staggers around an off-kilter, hypnotic rhythm and gospel backing vocals, while Case 795 (The Family) tells of a wife-killer’s pleas for forgiveness. But it’s Sweet Evening Breeze, a pared-back, plaintive lament for lost love and shattered dreams, which is the real gem. Only the quirkily irritating French Shoes prevents Human Wheels from being a genuine masterpiece.
His first release where it really all came together. Previous records had been more or less straight-down-the-line rock albums, but on this Mellencamp sidestepped into the bitter-sweet, had-it-tough sounds of his rural upbringing.
Rain On The Scarecrow tells the story of tenant farmers forced out of business by drought; in the confessional Smalltown John seemed to be getting to grips with his heritage; and R.O.C.K In The U.S.A. was a chunk of unashamed hero-worship that name-checked 60s legends as diverse as Mitch Ryder and the Shangri-Las. Even the melancholy tunes (Minutes To Memories, Lonely Ol’ Night) add up to a heavy-rotation listen.
In the UK at least, this was the album that brought Mellencamp (or John Cougar, as he still was then) to the notice of the record-buying public, through the hit single Jack & Diane. But scratching beneath the surface of even his most famous song reveals that all’s not well, as the two lovebirds sit back and reflect on their lost years.
Elsewhere Can You Take It and Thundering Hearts are two of Mellencamp’s best balls-out rockers, the latter co-written with long-time collaborator George Green. American Fool may not be the most sophisticated of the albums here, but it’s the closest he’s come to a top-down, sunburned, BBQ party record.
Fiddle-heavy and tinged with gospel inflections, The Lonesome Jubilee is chock-full of toe-tapping country/folk/ rock tunes. As always, most of the songs are three-minute snapshots of life, as JCM tells tales of shattered dreams (Paper In Fire), rails against the onset of middle-age (The Real Life) and breaks life’s dilemmas down to choices on a fast-food menu (Hotdogs And Hamburgers).
The production is crisp, and the characters, again, acutely observed, especially in standout track Down And Out In Paradise, a series of first-person pleas to the President asking why the land of plenty doesn’t appear to be as inclusive as it should.
Following the first of his ‘greatest hits’ collections (The Best That I Could Do), and 22 years into his recording career, this record sneaked out in 1998. Although less immediate than many Mellencamp releases, digging beneath its surface was richly rewarding.
A seam of frustrated anger runs through it, from the Biblical references anchoring Fruit Trader to Eden Is Burning, where the Jack and Diane of 1982 – now 16 years older and more jaded – discover that nothing lasts forever. Musically it’s often angular, but the trademark heart-hooking choruses are present on the likes of Your Life Is Now. Challenging, but worth the effort.
An intense, layered listen, Mr Happy Go Lucky saw Mellencamp and collaborator George Green focus their observational beam on the frailties of the human condition. Opening track Jerry tells the slightly disturbing tale of a 37- year-old father-of-six who sees the world through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy.
Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First) belies its cumbersome title and emerge as a wistful tale of (yet again) romantic yearning. The potted biographies are at their strongest again on This May Not Be The End Of The World. Mr Happy Go Lucky is a mature, insightful album that still sounds freshly minted and relevant today.
Next to American Fool this is the record where Mellencamp most turns up the amps and has a good ol’ party. But, hey, there’s still space amid the cranked guitars for a little campfire storytelling.
Love And Happiness shrugs off metaphor for a plain-speaking list of grievances with the USA, while Now More Than Ever is Lennon-esque, but far less naïve, in its plaintive plea for love in the world. Contrastingly, Get A Leg Up revisits the world of that cocky sidewalk-strutter of 1980 Johnny Cougar, whose horizons in life stretched no further than a few drinks at the weekend and a drive around the back roads with a pretty girl alongside him.
The earliest of the albums recommended here, Nothin’ Matters… is perhaps his most candid. That might be because of its innocence – few of the ideas are as fully formed as on later records – or the fact that it possesses a simple joie de vivre on tracks like Ain’t Even Done With The Night.
Don’t Misunderstand Me is a plea to a lover, with Cougar admitting his faults while simultaneously pleading for a little slack. In terms of sophistication (emotionally and musically) Nothin’ Matters… is miles from what Mellencamp would achieve later, but it’s still like a much-loved family album and cooing over the baby pictures.
Staying largely true to the formula that made its predecessor American Fool such a success, while refining some of the rougher edges, paid dividends on Uh-Huh. It kicks off with the staccato Crumblin’ Down, where brash acoustic guitars are used almost as percussion instruments, before Pink Houses sashays in.
There’s a return to favourite lyrical themes; the reality of life in America being very different to the airbrushed PR version. Unlike Springsteen’s, Mellencamp’s darkness isn’t on the edge of town – it’s right at its heart. There’s still room though for knockabout rock’n’rollers such as Authority Song and Play Guitar.
Louder – John Mellencamp: a guide to his best albums
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June 10, 2021