& 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
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.
- Words and Music
Lonely Ol' Night
Rain On The Scarecrow
Love And Happiness
Check It Out
Paper In Fire
Your Life Is Now
When Jesus Left Birmingham
What If I Came Knocking
R.O.C.K. In The USA
Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)
Hand To Hold On To
I Need A Lover
Hurts So Good
Get A Leg Up
Teardrops Will Fall
Ain't Even Done With The Night
Just Another Day
Jack & Diane
I'm Not Running Anymore
Now More Than Ever
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