One really must rate Mellencamp's work based the lyrics - the music is always serviceable hard and/or folksy rock with singable melodies, but nothing that gives Schubert anything to worry about. Occasionally something in the arrangements brings the music to a higher level or drags it down, but mostly you pay attention to what the man is singing.
It's odd but true that Indiana's favorite son seems to either reach peaks of sublime insight or produce mind-bendingly idiotic drivel. Hardly anything in between.
Unfortunately, the drivel factor is pretty high here. It's hard to rate this record objectively - it was one of the first albums I bought on my own volition, and its sheer boneheadedness warped my sense of sexuality for years. "Can You Take It?" is the worst sort of cock-rock swagger, and "Weakest Moments" seems to suggest that vulnerability should be seen as sexual opportunity. "Hurts So Good" and "Thundering Hearts" are collaboration with professional lyricist George Green, who does nothing to earn his half of the royalties. Mellencamp could certainly have come up with this half-brained crap on his own.
I can't say enough terrible things about "Jack and Diane." Way to discourage America's youth at their moment of indecision! Nice production, though, with that cool slap-back echo on the hands clapping.
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The great moments here are magnificent, and the idiocy is toned down to the merely moronic.
"Crumblin' Down" is a bit self-pitying, but as one of the earlier entries in the "blame the media" sweepstakes it doesn't seem as cliched as later attempts by other writers. "Pink Houses" is seen as some sort of populist anthem, but really seems like an extension of "Jack and Diane." Mellencamp has a serious case of pessimism, but in this case it's at least tempered by a self-deprecating sense of irony. "Authority Song" is definitely his wisest statement here; I love the fact that he recognizes that no one's keeping him down but himself, and yet I also respect his commitment to the jackass lifestyle.
He's still got plenty of stupid in him, but here it's expressed mostly in vulgar sexual innuendo, and what's a rock & roll record without "Lovin' Mother for Ya" and "Play Guitar"? (Too bad it has an incredibly annoying chorus just past the top range of his voice.)
There are a couple moments when he tries to address the big issues of emotional commitment and fidelity to one's values, but both "Warmer Place to Sleep" and "Golden Gates" sound like afterthoughts to his instinctive asshole nature.
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The band is tighter than ever here, so musically I love it. Mellencamp works with George Green again, and this time the collaboration proves its worth. Green tempers the natural pessimism of Mellencamp with some sober thoughts on why it's useful to be true to your values - "Minutes to Memories" is a lot more convincing than "Warmer Place to Sleep." And it seems to have rubbed off on Mellencamp, who works "Between a Laugh and a Tear" and "Rumbleseat" into ironically pessimistic ruminations that only bog down into self-pity occasionally.
On lighter moments, there are some high points, too. "ROCK in the USA" is terrific, fun and nostalgic but not reproving the current generation of rockers. "Small Town" tells it like it is in a small town, but doesn't complain, like so many of his earlier songs about small towns.
Green takes on a big political issue, too, presaging some of Mellencamp's later work. Unfortunately, he chooses the wrong one: the farming "crisis" of the 1980's. Yes, farming is a lifestyle, but it's also a business, and the failures of farms in that period were the result of a specific set of business choices and government policies (presumably supported strongly in the agricultural states, who almost always vote Republican by a 70 point margin) that caused a high debt load and low prices. Here, Mellencamp acts like it's some sort of natural disaster or unexplainable catastrophe. Instead, he might as well be writing an ode to John DeLorean - his business collapsed about the same time, didn't it? Anyway, I don't understand the imagery of "Rain on the Scarecrow." Isn't rain something farmers like?
There's less of the numbskullery on this album, but it's more imbecilic. "You've Got to Stand for Something" features the line, "I've seen a lot of things but I haven't seen a lot of other things" - oh, just like everyone else in the whole world! "Justice and Independence '85" is an extended metaphor that explains nothing except maybe why Mellencamp named his daughter Justice.
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The Lonesome Jubilee
Mellencamp adds a lot of new instruments to his sound - accordion, banjo, fiddle - but they don't play anything in particular, just adding to the chord sequences or droning on. They don't fundamentally change the musical approach.
Lyrically, Mellencamp is getting a lot smarter. The only dumb moment is "Hotdogs and Hamburgers" - the verses tell an interesting story, the moral of which would be obvious only to a person who had any knowledge of American history, but the chorus is baffling. What does the choice between hotdogs and hamburgers represent? They're both processed meat products cooked on a grill, right? How about hotdogs and falafel? There's a contrast!
There are a couple confusing spots, too. I'm not sure what we're checking out in "Check It Out", but it sure is catchy. "Down and Out in Paradise" has good lyrics but cramps them into a melody that is so breathless that you can't understand them.
Anyway, the rest is sharply observed stories of people watching their lives unfold in ways they wouldn't have predicted. "Paper in Fire" is a terrific examination of not heeding consequences, while "Empty Hands" is just heartbreaking in its details.
"The Real Life" and "Cherry Bomb" capture two ends of life, during which decisions must be made. What's great about Mellencamp is that he never judges the people in his songs. Their stories are laid out, the chorus comments on their connections to the listener, and we are left to think. This is the album where he does this trick best.
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You know, they say that the best way to get the attention of a drunk (or a classroom full of second graders) is to speak very quietly. It seems that when some rockers have a midlife crisis (apparently having popular records that people enjoy listening to just isn't enough anymore) and decide they have something "important" to say, they take the same tack. Sadly, just like your average drunk or second-grader, no one remembers what was said the next morning.
So this is Mellencamp's quiet album, and boy is it quiet. Even the mastering is low volume, so you get a ton of surface noise when you turn it up loud enough to hear the words. Other than playing pianissimo, the band doesn't have any new tricks, except a cool oboe solo on "Jackie Brown" so this album is mostly an effort to listen to - lots of earstrain involved.
What does come through is more of the same - portraits of the common man. Except this time, instead of pointing out people he expects the listener to empathize with, he's pointing out people who range from slightly goofy to skin-crawlingly repellent. "Martha Say" and "Theo and Weird Henry" feature people you recognize but don't like, "Big Daddy of Them All" features a Tennessee Williams character (literally), and "Country Gentleman" is a fairly obvious slam at Ronald Reagan (OK, you may like him, but it's clear Mellencamp doesn't).
There are a few moments that aspire to the insightful, like "To Live" and "Void in My Heart" but actually just point out that our songwriter is running dry on inspiration. (Who doesn't "want to live"?) "Jackie Brown" is a well-crafted portrait of a poor person, that completely lacks any point of interest to the average listener. I agree, it's shameful that a nation as rich as ours allows poverty to exist - but what about Jackie Brown makes his story compelling?
And the stupidity factor is cranked up high. "Pop Singer" is just lame-brained; there are lots of useful things to be said about the ethical dilemmas posed by the marketing needs imposed on rock stars, but "never wanted to have my manager over for dinner" is not one of them. "J.M.'s Question" asks, "What kind of world do we live in when eleven and seven equal two?" Um, not this world.
A lot of people rave about "Let It All Hang Out" but I own the vinyl version, which lacks the extra track - thereby earning Mellencamp the kind of condemnation for selling out his listeners that he would level on "Pop Singer." (I always thought it was a rip-off to make people shell out the extra four dollars for the CD to get bonus tracks; now with the demise of the LP it's not an issue.)
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Whenever We Wanted
I think something happened to Mellencamp's commercial sense around this time. The last album's single was "Pop Singer", and these time out he tried to sell "Get a Leg Up" to the Top 40 market. Was there no one at Mercury to tell him that his 10-song album contained 9 better songs than "Get a Leg Up"?
This record, at least, is loud. The fiddle player, the accordionist, the female backup singers, are all sharing a doobie on the back porch, and he's stuck with just drums, bass, and two guitars. It's a nice sound, but it gets a little samey here - the formula worked on Scarecrow because of careful attention to dynamics and mixing in some acoustics, but here it's all electric, all with the same Marshall sound, all at the same volume, so that the trumpet on "Whenever We Wanted" is a big relief.
There's one terrific piece of music, though. "Last Chance" has fantastic melodic lead work in a minor-key framework (possibly the only one in his entire career).
Mellencamp isn't trying to be profound here, so his simple statements about life aren't quite so grating. However, they don't leave much impression, either. The last two tracks, "Whenever We Wanted" and "Again Tonight," however, are wonderful. The first is a portrait of a couple facing some unspecified emotional distance, and is wistful and regretful without being self-pitying. The second is another in the line of commitment-to-a-lifestyle-that-will-do-me-in songs, but this time it's self-aware. "Last Chance" is too vague to mean much, but the lyrics don't undermine the fantastic music.
Meanwhile, the famous Mellencamp foot goes in the cavernous Mellencamp mouth all too often. "Get a Leg Up" is literally a scene from a dirty movie, but tacks on the Neanderthal notion that a man is owed "something" if he pays for a date. "Love and Happiness" condemns the world for not being heaven. (Allow me to add a long parenthetical note that is only tangentially related to Whenever We Wanted. A lot of people, Mellencamp included, tend to curse the present as being worse than the past, without ever referring to any facts. In "Love and Happiness" he sings, "If you're a young couple today, forget buying a house," implying that the housing market is shutting out more people than before. However, the facts are that, thanks to liberal lending policies of the FHA and Fannie Mae, almost every year of the past fifty has seen an increase in home ownership, to the point where more families than ever own their own homes. What has happened along with that is an increase in our expectations: because more families than ever own their homes, it seems like everyone ought to own a home, and it's some sort of betrayal of the American dream or something if people have to live in an apartment for a few years. Well, it sure beats the standards of the first half of this century, when many newlyweds lived with their parents. By any measurable standard of health and prosperity, Americans are better off than ever. Some may point to the decline of two-parent families or the gradual emptying of our small town as indicators that we're headed to Hell in a handbasket, but that's a value judgement. Besides, lots of people are leaving small towns because they can't stand living there - I know my grandfather did, and Henry Ford starting building cars just so he would never have to do farm work again. And if things were so hunky-dory in the past, then where did literature like Main Street and Catcher in the Rye come from? The reason people think life was better when they were kids is that, well, they were kids. Life is pretty good when you don't pay attention to the news and you don't have any bills to pay. I wish people would realize just how good we've got it. End of parenthetical remark; now back to the review.) "Melting Pot" seems to be unconsciously labeling many of our fellow citizens as "greasy".
Loud and dumb, but not as dumb as you might fear.
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The Coog (as we affectionately call him here in Michigan) goes world music? Who woulda thunk?
Yet, check out the credits for Kenny Aronoff: "Hand drums/Bongos/African Drum/Djembes/Congas/Maracas/Claves/Shakers/Tambourines/Rainstick/Guiro/D-Drums/Metal Percussion." Thank God, all the percussion sometimes drowns out his irritating snare sound.
And don't you think the guitar hook on "Suzanne and the Jewels" sound vaguely Indian?
The big trick Mellencamp has picked up from world music is that instrumental lines can be important parts of the melody, along with the vocals. And there are lots of excellent melodies here: "Beige to Beige" and "To the River" feature the melodica, a cross between an accordion and a tin whistle, and "Human Wheels" has a terrific mandolin/guitar duet.
What makes this a great album, besides the fabulous production and arrangements, is that Mellencamp has delivered some fabulous songs. Most noticeable is that lack of anything boneheaded. The closest he comes here is "French Shoes"; it's not actually dumb - in fact, it's meant to be lighthearted but the intention is betrayed by the sinister keyboard line.
But more important is the quantity of terrific songs. Aside from some pointless finger-pointing on "Case 795," his lyrics are constructed from genuine empathy and self-knowledge. This is an adult's album. "Sweet Evening Breeze" could be bitter, but instead it's wistful, and "What If I Came Knocking" recognizes that not every demand is negotiable. "Human Wheels" is a blend of Ezekiel's visions and Yeats's fatalism that puts Mellencamp's earlier quasi-Biblical numbers ("Crumblin' Down") to shame.
As for the tunes, well, they're Mellencamp tunes. I like his way with a melody, and I think the band he's put together (including for the last time violinist Lisa Germano and keyboardist John Cascella, who died during the sessions) is among the best working this territory. There are layers and layers of sound here, but the mix is beautifully transparent; all the instruments retain a natural sound but blend easily together.
Other records of his are more popular, but I think this is his best.
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Back to the boneheadedness, in a big way. Apparently the effort it took to craft a beautiful record full of intelligent songs only resulted in sales to his core audience, so he figured he could get the same sales with half-assed renditions of the first songs that came to mind. Man, are these songs bad.
"Dance Naked" is apparently supposed to be erotic, but it sounds more like a submission to True Confessions than "Let's Get It On." "Brothers" is an entire song based on an idea that might have been an uninteresting verse of "Paper in Fire." "L.U.V." is an unintentionally self-indicting rant that might as well be subtitled "I Was Just Thinking, by Frank Barone" (a little nod to all you Everybody Loves Raymond fans out there). I don't even know what "The Big Jack" is alluding to; it sounds like a rehash of "Close Enough" crossed with a spy novel.
To compound the disaster, Mellencamp didn't even record these songs properly. They don't even sound finished enough to be demos. Most songs have no bass, and guitars that sound like they're playing through practice amps. Kenny Aronoff's always lousy drumming is highlighted by the sparse arrangements. I defy you to find the downbeat in the first verse of "Too Much to Think About."
What's worse is that the guitar parts aren't all that creative - mostly strummed chords. There's even a glaringly obvious wrong chord in the second part of the verse of "When Margaret Comes to Town" - major when minor seventh is called for. It betrays the key signature and makes the melody sound false. This is the kind of mistake you hear from high school bands because they don't know enough chords. Surely someone in Mellencamp's band could have pointed this out to him.
Still, there's one terrific song here. "Another Sunny Day 12/25" is a brilliant reminder of the verities, and a call for positivity in the face of a media beating negativity into our brains- it especially hits home in wake of September 11, and we would all do well to listen up. The acoustic arrangement suits it well. If this was what Mellencamp had in mind for the whole album, it might have worked; the lame-brained choices in songwriting and production elsewhere make this album one of his weakest efforts.
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Mr. Happy Go Lucky
Rating: 6 (library disc)
After a big heart attack, Mellencamp looked at his career, decided it was time to stop living in the 70's, and made the bold step into 1984. Seriously, he's got lots of ideas this time around, so let's examine them, shall we?
The overture: Bad idea - does he think he's Pete Townshend all of a sudden? It might work if his melodies didn't all sound the same, but they do (they always have) and it doesn't.
Drum loops: Great idea - it keeps a lid on Kenny Aronoff, whose playing is pretty respectable this time around. The dance-music influence is subtle, but I find it refreshing.
Sticking with the fiddles, mandolin, etc.: Good idea - while not quite at the inspired level of Human Wheels, the arrangements on this record are pretty interesting. I love how "Just Another Day" kicks off with a guitar lick working against the mandolin riff, while the bass plays a scale underneath. In fact, this whole song is brilliantly performed: check out the bass line's syncopation in the second verse, and how the cowbell fills in the spaces.
Being his usual pessimistic self: Bad idea - we've already got the idea that John Mellencamp thinks "Life is Hard" (as the last song goes); it's kind of tiresome for him to keep cramming it down our throats. Life might not be so hard if you weren't such a jerk about it (also if you didn't keep cheating on your wives and firing band members for alleged insults).
So there it is, another John Mellencamp record, more tuneful than usual, but less than penetrating in its insight into the human condition. I'm glad he's still exploring new ideas musically; I just wish he'd get some into his lyrics, too.
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Rating: 4 (library disc)
I’m sure he decided to name the album John Mellencamp because it was a new start with a new record label, blah blah blah. But the title’s just as appropriate because it sounds like every damn album he’s done. It might as well be one of those generic K-Tel “John Mellencamp” reissues. Except it’s not catchy. What was once an interesting, innovative blend of Appalachian instruments with rock rhythms has been reduced to formula. It doesn’t help that he seems to have left all his hooks somewhere else.
I guess Mellencamp’s musical ennui reflects some sort of disinterest with the whole business. Song after song describes aimless characters with “no purpose, no direction… no particular point of view”. Yes, Mellencamp probably knows people like that. But they’re not very interesting. Throw on a pile of lazy rhymes (“My mother called me "Hon" / My father was unhappy ‘cause I should have been his son”, “A church supper with Grandma and Grandad / Let's go out and have ourselves the best time we've ever had”) and unfocused metaphor (“We're just pissin' in the wind / From underneath the sheets that we pray from” sounds messy!, “When you cut away the skin that bears the brand / Standin' in the darkness, Baby, there I am” presumably screaming in agony!) and you’ve got the ravings of a grumpy old man with more bile than sense. Get out some, join a book club, maybe watch PBS for a couple hours, John. You'll gain a whole new perspective on life.
Oh, yeah, he also throws in some samples. It’s about as successful as you imagine a John Mellencamp song with samples would be.
But “I’m Not Running Anymore” gallops along nicely with a solid hook, and I enjoy it every time it plays on the supermarket PA.
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Rating: 4 (library disc)
There are cow pastures with less bullshit than this record.
The sound is a little improvement from last go-around: there’s an accordion and a violin again, but Kenny Aronoff is gone so the drums don’t sound like they’re being played by a man suffering convulsions. If I’d never heard any of his music, I think I’d like it, but he hasn’t thought of a new melody in at least a decade.
But J.M. has, once again, decided that opinions are the same things as causes, and so we can enjoy an album full of social commentary about what are essentially non-issues. He devotes an entire track to discouraging African-Americans from calling each other “nigger.” First of all, how is it his business? Second, who cares? Chuck D concurs on his rap (by the way, whose brilliant idea was it to put Chuck D and Mellencamp together? Someone who wanted to tap into the hidden market of heartland rockers who couldn’t get enough of It Takes a Nation of Millions? Or an urban visionary who knows that the streets of Brooklyn are filled with hip-hoppers longing to hear the soulful strains of an accordion?) but it’s not real convincing.
Mellencamp also brings us his vision of a peaceful world “from Indiana down to Tennessee.” Wow! Can you imagine people from such distant cultures living in harmony? It’s a pipe dream, but maybe Kentucky really is heaven. Elsewhere he decries the growing ethnic homogeneization of America, which makes me wonder which America he’s living in, considering the huge increase in minority population in the last couple decades.
He’s a smooth talker with the ladies, too. Who can resist a line like “Can you shelter me / From this anxiety / Hey baby don't look me in the eye / 'Cause I'm sexually shy shy shy”. It’s no wonder that “Women seem to want me / To stay with them all night.” I kind of wonder which women, though, as he goes on to say, “Well women seem to know how to keep a secret / They don't blabbermouth just for show.”
Some time ago, I saw a documentary in which the Philosopher of Bloomington declared that “Men ain’t no good until they’re forty.” While at the time I viewed as a lame attempt to write off his long history of hotheadedness and infidelity (five children by three women), now I see what he means. Only a wise older man could redeem the callow slogans of “Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone” with pearls like “If you're not part of the future then get out of the way.” A truly inclusive gesture, indeed.
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