As an artist, John Mellencamp is as tough and resilient as they come.
Perseverant enough to overcome the ridiculous moniker "Johnny Cougar"
(given to him by his first manager), he kept his head above water long
enough to eventually make his mark on the pop charts with roots-rock
cornball like "I Need A Lover" and "Hurt So Good."
Just when critics couldn't stand any more of his simple-minded
sentimentality, he surprised everyone by growing up and releasing sharp
social commentary on songs like
"Rain On The Scarecrow" and on dramatically textured albums like The
But like many aging rock 'n' rollers, Mellencamp has seen a significant
decline in popularity in recent years. Beginning with the gripping fatalism of
1989's Big Daddy -- with the lyrics "I don't want to be no pop
singer" as the chorus -- his records have become increasingly dark and
introspective. Not surprisingly, critics love this
change as much as the bean-counters at the record company hate it.
John Mellencamp, his first recording on Columbia, is a
self-proclaimed fresh start. It's clear he's trying to return to his
roots as a populist rock 'n' roller. The record is loud, brash and
light, a throwback to the days of Uh-huh and Scarecrow.
It's certain to appeal to his heartland fans as a return to form and
leave critics longing for the more thoughtful Mellencamp of the
overlooked Human Wheels and Mr. Happy Go Lucky.
The first single, "Your Life Is Now," is classic Mellencamp. It features
the same whisper-to-a-scream arranging that made "Jack And Diane" a sonic
standout -- a style that Kurt Cobain would take to the bank in the early '90s.
Loud and catchy, with a hook that pummels almost as hard as its
wake-up-you're-sleeping-through-heaven message, it boils down to say,
yes, you can change the world. Corny and obvious, sure, yet like the
best anthems, it rings true.
The album's production is as bright as the music itself, capturing the
energy of the performances with a sound that's crisp and raw. Mellencamp
has never forgotten the contributions James Brown has made to rock 'n'
roll, so it's also
percussive and danceable. The drums crash and thunder, while all sorts of
noises -- from traditional cowbells and tambourines to samples and drum
machines -- minimize the musical spaces and push up the energy. His recent
fascination with hip-hop clearly shows, as the drum tracks are dense and
complicated. Yet the traditional fiddle and slide guitar aren't forgotten,
Much as there is to like about John Mellencamp, however, there's
plenty that doesn't work. "Miss Missy" is a rough and energetic rocker
that's as empty as it is loud. The addition of Indian instruments to
"Summer Of Love" is a stretch, as is the Jamaican-style toasting of "Break
Me Off Some." With the exception of "Your Life Is Now," none of the songs
approachability that marked Mellencamp's best work; and some, like "Summer
Of Love," border on the pointless.
It's clear -- from the album's energy and performances -- that Mellencamp
is doing more than just going through the motions. John Mellencamp
is no Voodoo Lounge or Hell Freezes Over. And while he's
clearly trying to stay true to his form, he's also pushing his own envelope
and not letting his name and reputation do the work.
On one of his should-have-been hits from Human Wheels, Mellencamp
asks to remain "as human as he can be." On John Mellencamp, he's plenty
human -- flaws and all.