http://assets-s3.rollingstone.com/assets/images/album_review/5337c116fb0eac173bfe2c27ccb96098651790c1.jpg Human Wheels

John Mellencamp

Human Wheels

Rolling Stone: star rating
Community: star rating
5 0 0
September 30, 1993

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.

Album Review Main Next


Community Guidelines »
loading comments

loading comments...


Sort by:
    Read More
    Daily Newsletter

    Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

    Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
    marketing partners.


    We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

    Song Stories

    “Bleeding Love”

    Leona Lewis | 2007

    In 2008, The X Factor winner Leona Lewis backed up her U.K. singing competition victory with an R&B anthem for the ages: "Bleeding Love," an international hit that became the best-selling song of the year. The track was co-penned by OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder (whose radio dominance would continue with songs such as Beyonce's "Halo" and Adele's "Rumour Has It") and solo artist Jesse McCartney, who was inspired by a former girlfriend, Gossip Girl actress Katie Cassidy. Given the song's success, McCartney didn't regret handing over such a personal track: "No, no," he said. "I'm so happy for Leona. She deserves it. There are really no bad feelings."

    More Song Stories entries »