Cuttin' Heads

On Cuttin' Heads, the fifty-year-old John Mellencamp deals with middle age by addressing both external issues like race and the state of the nation (using feisty candor) and matters of the heart (using an unusually restrained and confessional delivery). Put the personal and political halves together, and you've got a portrait of the artist as a not-so-young man. He's righteously indignant about racial divisions on "Cuttin' Heads" but streaks blunt realism with unsinkable idealism on "Peaceful World," a singalong with neo-soul songwriter India.Arie. Mellencamp is canny and funny on the topic of the fairer sex, obsessing about it on "Women Seem," "Worn Out Nervous Condition" and "Shy."

The title track will surely garner the most attention. This soulful shout-out tells the travails of an interracial couple and jabs at entertainers who use the word nigga with a potent rap from Chuck D of Public Enemy (who bellows, "Die, n-word, die/But I wanna live/Let's ride"). Despite this hip-hop opening, the rest of Cuttin' Heads has more in common with the organic, rootsy Lonesome Jubilee than Mellencamp's genre-bridging 1996 experiment, Mr. Happy Go Lucky. Various and sundry instruments — from omnipresent acoustic and electric guitars to violin, flute, organ, pedal steel, banjo and mandolin — weave in and out of these leanly arranged tunes. Percussion is much in evidence and even lends a Santana-esque texture to "Just Like You." Mellencamp, as usual, writes strikingly about the heart ("Deep Blue Heart") and the heartland ("Crazy Island"), the twin concerns on an album that manages to be at once old-fashioned and very contemporary.