Music Review: John Mellencamp - 1978-2012 (19-Disc Box Set)

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Any John Mellencamp fan would do well to check out the December 19 issue of Rolling Stone, in which the singer-songwriter selects his 15 defining songs. He prefaces his choices by plugging the new career-spanning, 19-disc box set, 1978-2012. For the record, these discs feature the same bonus tracks as the 2005 reissues, so don’t expect anything new. “Before CDs totally go away,” Mellencamp says, “I wanted to make sure people could go … ‘OK, I’ve got every record he’s made.’” That’s not quite the case, as his earliest three albums—Chestnut Street Incident (1976), A Biography (1978), The Kid Inside (1983; recorded 1977)—didn’t make the cut. Completists will have to hunt those early ones down, but most fans are likely to be satisfied with this huge bundle of rock and roll.

In fact, it’s probably safe to say that many fans consider the 1982 breakthrough American Fool to be the proper starting point anyway. This was the last one released under the label-enforced stage name “John Cougar” and the first to spawn major hits, “Jack & Diane” and “Hurts So Good.” In the Rolling Stone piece, Mellencamp—as forthcoming and honest as ever in his self-assessment—admits that although Fool was a huge album, “it wasn’t a very good one. Very uneven.” Its hidden gem is the closing track, “Weakest Moments,” with the queasily incestuous opening line, “I hear you downstairs/You’re fooling around with your father’s brother/And your mother’s gown.” A simple arrangement, with an evocative, impassioned lead vocal.

The ‘80s saw Mellencamp’s roots rock vision crystalize over the course of a still-underrated string of first-rate albums. Uh-Huh brought more big hits in ’83, kicking off with one of the greatest opening trios in rock music: “Crumblin’ Down,” “Pink Houses,” and “Authority Song.” But for the first time, the non-singles were consistently strong too, highlighted by the ass-kicking rock of “Serious Business” and “Lovin’ Mother fo’ Ya.” He painted what is arguably his masterpiece with 1985’s Scarecrow, though more finely-nuanced music was yet to come. It was one of those rare albums where almost the whole thing was a hit, as Billboard smashes “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” “Lonely Ol’ Night,” and “Small Town” shared airtime with radio hits like “Rumbleseat,” “Justice and Independence ’85” and “Minutes to Memories.”

Cover__300JPG (380x380).jpgEven so, for what’s worth Mellencamp never became a true critic’s darling and to this day he’s still only won a single Grammy award (Best Rock Vocal Performance for “Hurts So Good”). The artist himself stated some years ago on a VH-1 special, “It’s never been cool to like John Mellencamp.” If the album cuts weren’t quite as consistent on 1987’s “The Lonesome Jubilee,” the rustic Appalachian folk elements that peppered the album made an impact. “After I did that, there were thousands of bands with accordions and violins,” Mellencamp told Rolling Stone, in his comments for the album’s lead-off track, “Paper in Fire” (“the ultimate John Mellencamp song,” he claims). Other signature hits included “Check it Out,” bolstered by an unforgettably wistful instrumental hook, and the deeply nostalgic “Cherry Bomb.”

The deep Americana feel continued on what might be the most mature, fully-realized album statement of his most commercially prominent decade, Big Daddy (1989). “Pop Singer” was a hit single and video (not to mention a controversy-stirring, anti-artifice message), but his storytelling-in-song hit new heights with “Jackie Brown,” “Martha Say,” and “Theo and Weird Henry.”

The most jaw-droppingly frank statement in the recent Rolling Stone piece is Mellencamp’s summary of his ‘90s output as “paint by numbers.” He remembers the decade as being one in which he attempted to do as little as possible, “just [making] up song songs in the studio.” It shows. Without exception, his six ‘90s albums are uneven, though not without obvious highpoints. Dance Naked (1994) scored him another massive hit with a cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night,” greatly aided by Me'shell Ndegeocello’s co-vocal and funky bass line. Mr. Happy Go Lucky also added a pair of deserved hits to his roster, “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)” and “Just Another Day.” And after the so-called “heartland rock” of the ‘80s, Whenever We Wanted kicked off the ‘90s with a surprisingly fierce, edgy guitar rock sound.

Also included from that decade is the soundtrack to the Mellencamp-directed film Falling from Grace (1992), most of which is performed by other artists. Nothing against that fine collection of country tunes, but perhaps this collection would’ve been better served by a rarities disc that included only Mellencamp’s tracks from the soundtrack, along with his other odds and ends. Add in the missing early albums and it could’ve made 1978-2012 truly comprehensive.

The year 2000 and beyond has seen a steep drop-off in productivity from Mellencamp, but an equally steep increase in artistry. The two most recent, T Bone Burnett-produced records rank with the best in his career. With his days of swinging for the Billboard Hot 100 fences in the Billboard long behind him, his songwriting has deepened even further. Life, Death, Love and Freedom was marked by decidedly grimmer lyrical territory and a darker sound than ever before (“If I Die Sudden,” “Don’t Need This Body,” “County Fair”). The deliberately lo-fi No Better Than This was recorded in mono on vintage recording equipment, with the band huddled around a single microphone. Recorded in part at the legendary Sun Studios, this early folk and rockabilly-influenced collection makes as strong a case for John Mellencamp’s artistic vitality as anyone could ask for.

With another album to be produced T Bone Burnett on the horizon, this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (inducted in 2008) is far from finished. 1978-2012 covers a lot of ground and is a journey worth taking for any fan of popular music.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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