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Yesterday & Today: John Mellencamp
By Travis Becker

The art of musical reinvention probably dates back to David Bowie’s various musical incarnations of the 60’s and 70’s.  It didn’t really come into its own, however, until the artists of the 80’s hit the 90’s.  It must have become apparent that their absurd discretions of the prior decade necessitated a transition into a more contemporary and serious persona.  It happened to Madonna, it happened to U2, and it even happened to Bon Jovi.  

One popular artist of the 80’s managed to side step this transgression and stuck to the image that won over his fans in the first place and parlayed it into a 20 plus year career without ever putting out a concept album, a folk album, or a collaboration with Kenny G.  

In fact, the only thing about John Mellencamp (about whom this diatribe has been based) that has noticeably changed is his name.  But what’s in a name?  Mellencamp has come a long way from the days of Johnny Cougar without ever leaving home.  Mellencamp took the populist sentimentality of Bruce Springsteen and fused it with a much simpler Mid-Western sensibility and became a hit-making machine in the early to mid eighties.  Songs like “Jack and Diane” and “Pink Houses” became a part of the cultural lexicon in the same way that “Born in the USA” did around the same time.  

With the release of “Words and Music” on Island Records in 2004 John Mellencamp makes a case for his own career even after those chart topping years.  He does so with a great deal of success because of the way he went about that career.  Throughout the years Mellencamp has never strayed far from his core ideal, that of simple people living simple lives in an unwaveringly chaotic world.  Even as he got older, he never catered to younger audiences or tried blatantly to change his sound to pander to the kinder, gentler bunch of adults his listeners had become.  “Peaceful World” from his last studio release, “Cuttin’ Heads” and “Walk Tall”, one of two new tracks on this release, are as honest and relevant as anything he has ever written and help to remind one that Mellencamp is a hell of a songwriter as well, no matter how old he gets.

The bottom line, though, is that this release is another rehash of John Cougar’s back catalog with a couple of new tracks thrown in for good measure.  Well, it is and it isn’t.  If all you want is the huge hits, which Mellencamp ceased to have in about 1992, then the prior greatest hits release, “The Best That I Could Do” is going to be plenty for you.

However, if you want to delve a little deeper into the artist, if you want songs that give you that same feeling you get when “Hurts So Good” comes on the radio, “Words and Music” is worth checking out.  First of all, you get some excellent album tracks from the early albums like “Rain on the Scarecrow” which may be the best Live-Aid song ever written.  

Second, the non- chronological sequencing really helps about the tracks from the later years.  A few songs still sound dated in terms of production, but overall, everything on the release stands up really well as a body of work.  I still love “Nothing Matters and What if it Did?” and I still hate “Dance Naked” but hearing them together makes it all sound pretty right on. 

The bonus DVD is of negligible importance, but the package is reasonably priced even if it is poorly packaged.  There is full track notation, but the only biographical info, an essay by Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, is pretty ho-hum.

“Words and Music” isn’t revelatory, but it does put Mellencamp’s work into a fresh perspective and should open up some new listeners to giving his music a try.  John Cougar Mellencamp has never tried to be anyone but who he is, a rock and roll kid from the Mid-West.  He’s not the same as he was in his twenties, but you can tell he’s the same person, just older and maybe a little bit wiser.  Now if the guy could just get a decent haircut.

CD Info 

John Mellencamp - Words and Music
Label: Island Records
Disc 1
Walk Tall
Pink Houses
Lonely Ol' Night
Jackie Brown
Rain On The Scarecrow
Love And Happiness
Check It Out
Peaceful World
Paper In Fire
Your Life Is Now
Human Wheels
When Jesus Left Birmingham
Authority Song
What If I Came Knocking
Crumblin' Down
Small Town
R.O.C.K. In The USA
Cherry Bomb
Pop Singer
Disc 2
Thank You
Martha Say
Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)
Hand To Hold On To
I Need A Lover
Hurts So Good
Get A Leg Up
Wild Night
Dance Naked
Teardrops Will Fall
Ain't Even Done With The Night
Just Another Day
Jack & Diane
Rumble Seat
I'm Not Running Anymore
Again Tonight
This Time
Now More Than Ever

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