John Mellencamp

The title of John Mellencamp's fifteenth album is his name, which is a way of signifying that it's both a self-portrait and a career plateau-cum-new beginning. Mellencamp strikes a balanced middle ground between his origins as a straightforward Midwestern rocker and his later compulsion (à la Neil Young) to chase less-commercial tangents. His first album for Columbia after a long stint at Mercury, John Mellencamp is a sharp, coherent summary of musical strengths and lyrical themes. As David Bowie did with Major Tom on the "Space Oddity" sequel, "Ashes to Ashes," Mellencamp updates the lives of his best-known characters, Jack and Diane, in "Eden Is Burning." While the song's guitar-fueled hooks and spacious arrangement may sound familiar, its moody, minor-keyed complexion reveals sepulchral doubts — "How could I have been so wrong about you?" — while the very world outside goes up in flames. Streaked with darkhued slashes from Miriam Sturm's violin, "Fruit Trader" reprises the biblical parable of Cain and Abel (last referenced on "Brothers," from Dance Naked) to voice a bleak plaint about the conflict-ridden modern world: "We're just yellin' in the dark/We're just pissin' in the wind."

If any one theme dominates, it's the need for moral authority to save us from ourselves. This issue is addressed forthrightly on "Your Life Is Now," a heartfelt plea set to one of Mellencamp's most unabashedly lovely melodies. Even with a hip-hop sample and eclectic touches flecked into the mix here and there, the album's overall tone is remarkably consistent. Only toward the end of the disc does the thread break, as Mellencamp indulges a few ersatz side trips — a jivey slab of hip-hop funk ("Break Me Off Some") and a mildly diverting, Donovan-esque, Sixties-retro novelty ("Summer of Love") — that might best have been saved as B-side curiosities. Otherwise, John Mellencamp is a rock-solid piece of work from a feisty heartland artiste who is not merely coasting on the past.

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