John Mellencamp Steps Back, Moves Forward On New Album

The album's first single, "Your Life Is Now," is corny, but like all good anthems, rings true.

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

Lonesome

Jubilee.

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,

either.

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

has the

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.