John Mellencamp hits hardest when he leads with his heart instead of his head. While his material was rarely as dumb as his detractors suggested back in the Cougar days, his more self-consciously ambitious songcraft of recent years occasionally suffers from thematic overreach. At their best, however, the powerhouse performances by Mellencamp and band reduce the lyric sheet to filigree.
Sound and sense find a common denominator when Mellencamp forsakes big-picture philosophizing for a snapshot attention to detail. Thus a comparatively offhand throwaway such as "French Shoes" rings truer than the more studied poetics of "To the River," while the bittersweet reminiscence of "Sweet Evening Breeze" — as straight-forward as a diary entry — has a resonance beyond the metaphysics of "Human Wheels." From the domestic violence of "Case 795 (The Family)" to the sensual urgency of "What If I Came Knocking," the music that rocks hard does so with a purpose.
Throughout the album, Mellencamp's band sounds more involved and inspired than ever, with guitarist David Grissom hurling lightning bolts that split the soundscape and drummer Kenny Aronoff providing the most inventively dependable propulsion since Charlie Watts. The recruitment of Malcolm Burn as co-producer (known for his adventurous forays into atmospheric Americana with artists ranging from the Neville Brothers to Chris Whitley to Iggy Pop) adds some textural embellishment to the crispness that has long marked Mellencamp's riff-rocking recordings.
The result is Mellencamp's richest and most fully realized album since Scarecrow in 1985, one where all-American rock encompasses elements ranging from folkish mandolin to R&B backing vocals (from returnee Pat Peterson) without seeming like a fashion statement or an artistic retrenchment. The album-opening "When Jesus Left Birmingham" echoes the refrain from "Jack and Diane" (1982) — "So let it rock, let it roll, let the Bible Belt come and save my soul" — while acknowledging that the time is long gone when Mellencamp's generation could "hold on to 16, as long as you can." Within these songs of middle-aged malaise, spiritual yearning and creative redemption, Mellencamp may not know what it all means, but he knows exactly how it feels.