With "Peaceful World," John Mellencamp has not only scored his biggest hit in years, he's created a song whose call for racial unity has struck a chord with listeners in a post-September 11 world. It's just one of several political songs on his new album, Cuttin' Heads, which comes out Tuesday.
When Mellencamp started work on the album last year, he had doubts as to whether he'd be putting out any new music at all in 2001.
"I didn't know if I was ever gonna finish the record," he said backstage before a concert in Milwaukee in August, Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland blaring as he worked out before the show. "We just kept working on it and working on it and it got to a point where we quit on it."
Mellencamp blames the delays on the change of scenery he originally thought would give him a fresh approach to his music. After recording almost all of his albums since 1985 at his studio in Belmont, Indiana, he and his band headed down to Islamorada in the Florida Keys, where they set up shop in a hurricane shelter that had been converted into a studio.
"We could literally walk out of this hurricane shelter and walk three minutes and be on the beach, and I think the music kind of suffered because of it," Mellencamp said. "The music just kind of smelled like Jimmy Buffett, which is a bad thing. I didn't believe it could happen, but it did."
So after two unsuccessful stints in Islamorada, Mellencamp came back to Belmont, where he wrapped up Cuttin' Heads in June. After experimenting with dance beats and acoustic music in recent years, Mellencamp said he wanted to get back to his rock and roll roots. "It was, 'Let's try to make something that everybody else isn't doing,' which is really quite different than what the record company likes," Mellencamp said.
Cuttin' Heads is a return to the sound of 1987's The Lonesome Jubilee, where instruments like violin and flute augment guitar-based rockers and country-ish ballads. The title track is one of Mellencamp's hardest-hitting songs, both musically and lyrically, with Rolling Stones-style guitars driving a tune that addresses racial politics from two different angles.
The song's narrative tells the story of an interracial marriage, with a white Southerner coming within a knife blade of killing a man who verbally attacked his black wife. At the last minute, he decides not to, deciding, "Someday the wind of change is gonna blow on through/ And put all these jokers right."
It's a rhyme from Public Enemy's Chuck D criticizing other rappers for using the "N" word in the song's middle section, however, that's likely to raise eyebrows. "I connect the word with pain," Chuck D raps. "Now some smile when they scream the name?/ Funny how the times have changed and the rhymes have changed."
"This is about black people selling out other black people," Mellencamp said, adding that he and Chuck talked for hours about what the rap would be about. "When you've got a guy on MTV or VH1 waggin' his $150,000 watch or his $200,000 necklace, saying the word 'n-----' ... suburban white kids buy these records and think this is what black people are like. He's created a new stereotype that they used to call Uncle Tom."
Social commentary runs through most of Cuttin' Heads. "Crazy Island" talks about America's isolationism and tendency to ignore its own faults, while "Peaceful World" is a call for people to walk the walk when they talk about racial unity.
As was the case with "Cuttin' Heads," Mellencamp felt like he couldn't come out as a wealthy white rocker and expect to be taken seriously without reaching out himself when he recorded the song. "For me or a Bruce Springsteen to sit up in our ivory towers and make comments about racism, well, we're not really in it, are we?" Mellencamp said. So he called on India.Arie to sing with him on the song.
"I needed to have somebody sing with me, and I needed someone who had soul, but who hadn't been part of the 'booty call' mentality," Mellencamp said. "And I needed to find a girl who it didn't look like I was trying to get something off of her. Lauryn Hill would have been great, but I didn't want people to go, 'Why's Mellencamp with her?' India was absolutely the right choice, and the decision wasn't taken lightly."
Though it was written and released before the terrorist attacks on the United States, the song has become something of an anthem for people looking to overcome racial divisiveness.
"I've always wanted my music to serve a certain purpose," India.Arie said Thursday at the City of Hope benefit dinner in Los Angeles, where she performed Stevie Wonder's "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer." "I do believe in prophecy. Everyone knew that something was going to happen at the real millennium. Songs like 'Peaceful World' and songs that are responsible with their lyrics and talk about love and harmony can take the forefront and do something for real. ['Peaceful World'] has taken on a new meaning, but we all kind of saw something coming."
In typically straightforward and self-deprecating style, Mellencamp is less idealistic about what the song might achieve. "I don't think it really makes a hell of a lot of difference," he said. "It's just another f---ing rock song."
Cuttin' Heads isn't all politics. "Deep Blue Heart" is a longing ballad sung with Trisha Yearwood, and "Women Seem" is a lighthearted take on the differences between men and women that became a crowd favorite on his recent U.S. tour, which wrapped up in September.
With the tour over and the album almost out, Mellencamp will turn his attention back to finishing songs for the musical he's working on with Stephen King. He said the music is unlike anything he's worked on before. "They're not rock songs," he said. "The reason I'm interested is that I don't have to worry about any pop sensibility. I can write adult songs, and I don't have to worry about choruses and hook lines" (see "Mellencamp Talks About Writing Musical With Stephen King").