John Mellencamp may be known for changing his name an astonishing three times, but he is respected for two other qualities: his status as the Bruce Springsteen of the Midwest, and his refusal to compromise his sound to fit the latest trends.
Over 35 years Mellencamp’s career has spanned from the butt-kicking early sound of “Hurts So Good” to the Mississippi blues of “J.M.’s Question.” Folk and country make appearances, such as on the lovely “Jackie Brown” and “Freedom’s Road.” A new nineteen-CD box set, John Mellencamp 1978-2012, allows a full appreciation of his maverick artistic nature, also successfully arguing why he remains one of the 1980s’ best talents.
When he began as John Cougar, Mellencamp showed a propensity for updating old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll for modern audiences. At the same time, he demonstrated a flair for writing memorable hooks that lingered in the memory. His early albums John Cougar, Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did, and American Fool exemplify this period. While songs like “Hurts So Good” and “I Need A Lover” may perfectly accompany nights at the local bar (an image propagated by the biker-heavy video for “Hurts So Good”), the lyrics hinted at a gifted songwriter.
“Ain’t Even Done with the Night” contains a smattering of soul and sophisticated chord changes. “Jack and Diane” fulfills Mellencamp’s initial promise, as he melds catchy, hand-clapping rhythms with a universally relatable story of two regular kids. With that track, Mellencamp embarked on his transformation from “Cougar” to a serious-but-still-rocking superstar. No more would he just be “close enough for rock ‘n’ roll,” as he sings on “Close Enough.”
Now John Cougar Mellencamp, he followed up 1982’s successful American Fool with the stunning Uh-Huh, a timeless collection of tracks telling stories of small towns and America in general. “Pink Houses” stands a triumph of combining poetry with accessible rock. “Ain’t that America — home of the free, yeah; little pink houses for you and me,” he sneers, essentially shattering the American dream by describing characters struggling in their daily lives.
Mellencamp’s early rebellious streak is alive and well, however, in stellar rockers like “Crumblin’ Down” and “Authority Song.” “He said ‘You don’t need no strength, you need to grow up son'; I said, ‘Growing up leads to growing old and then to dying — and dying to me don’t sound like all that much fun'” he sings on the latter song.
Uh Huh turned out to be just a warm up for his masterpiece: 1985’s Scarecrow. A sprawling statement on America and the Midwest, Mellencamp speaks for the farmer fighting for survival, small town youth reaching adulthood, and nostalgia for supposedly better times. “Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plough” he snarls, venting his rage over farmers losing their livelihood. In “Small Town,” he voices a character who clearly experiences both love and hate for his status. His parents raised him in the town and he still lives there, admitting that “My job is so small town, provides little opportunity.” Yet he describes family and friends, suggesting that Mellencamp may be addressing his own desire to never abandon his roots for Hollywood.
“No I cannot forget where it is that I come from; I cannot forget the people who love me,” he sings with apparent pride. “Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town — and people let me be just what I want to be.” He balances the good time vibe of “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” with “You’ve Got to Stand for Something,” cautioning that “You’ve got to stand for something, or you’re gonna fall for anything.”
Mellencamp’s next effort, 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee, largely continues Scarecrow’s themes. Here he interweaves rock, blues, and country to again spin tales of unrealized dreams, longing for the past, and small town life. Despite these complex themes, Mellencamp still racked up hits like the twangy “Paper in Fire” and the fond look at country life, “Cherry Bomb.” As usual, he never shies away from critiquing American ideals, such as on “Hard Times for an Honest Man” and “Empty Hands.” “Across the cities, across this land, through the valleys, and across the sand,” he begins in the latter track. Will this be a patriotic hymn? The next lines unequivocally answer that question: “Too many people standin’ in line; too many people with nothin’ planned — there’s too many people with empty hands.”
The John Cougar Mellencamp era ends with 1989’s Big Daddy, a somber work that spawned the sarcastic “Pop Singer” and the aformentioned “Jackie Brown.” While not as immediately accessible as his prior work, Big Daddy portrays a fully mature talent openly reflecting on his role as a rock star and spokesman for the working class of the Midwest. Flashes of fun like the surprisingly funky “Let It All Hang Out” make appearances as well.
The remaining albums in the set represent the latest John Mellencamp era: Whenever We Wanted (1991); Falling from Grace (1992); Human Wheels (1993); Dance Naked (1994); Mr. Happy Go Lucky (1996); John Mellencamp (1998); Rough Harvest (1999); Cuttin’ Heads (2001); Trouble No More (2003); Freedom’s Road (2007); Life, Death, Love, and Freedom (2008); and No Better Than This (2010). During this period, Mellencamp has proven that he can still write hits, but is more interested in recording songs reflecting his own musical interests.
“Get A Leg Up,” “Human Wheels,” “Wild Night,” “Dance Naked,” “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First),” and “Our Country” are just a few examples of his most memorable singles from the 1990s until today. He also revisited his classics on Rough Harvest, essentially Mellencamp’s “unplugged” album. Life, Death, Love, and Freedom explores what Mellencamp calls “modern electric folk songs,” while Trouble No More paid homage to traditional blues.
Over the last twenty years, Mellencamp has served as a living definition of the term “Renaissance man.”
While not inexpensive, the John Mellencamp 1978-2012 box set is a must-own for any Mellencamp fan. It provides a long overdue spotlight on his impressive work, and successfully argues why he has become a legendary figure in rock ‘n’ roll history.