Mr. Happy Go Lucky

The anxious fiddle overture alerts us to the serious fun ahead. Mr. Happy Go Lucky — John Mellencamp's 14th album — is anything but happy, an exploration of mortality from Mellencamp's mordant, post-heart-attack perspective. The record is long on atmospherics, a dark-carnival collage of mad laughter and distant whispers (including the resigned voices of old people that recall Simon and Garfunkel's similar sound-bite trick on Book-ends). But those effects are well matched to the songs, which are among the darkest and wittiest that Mellencamp has ever delivered.

The presence of techno-dance wizard Junior Vasquez as co-producer and the fat bass lines of Tony! Toni! Toné! bassist Raphael Saadiq deepen the funk on several tracks, but there's nothing trendy or merely grooving here. The mix is richly layered and the tempos mostly moderate to slow, in earthy sync with Mellencamp's lowdown, Dylan-style rasp and hard-strummed folk-rock constructions. The emotional weather, however, shifts freely. On "Jerry," Mellencamp delivers a swampy gris-gris-man shout about the loon within, then, with the sashaying feel of "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)," he slips into the role of the sweet-hearted tough guy.

When Mellencamp leans more on tried-and-true attitude rather than high craft, the results are less memorable, as in the catchy riffing of "Just Another Day," or downright trite, as in the album's glib closing tracks "Jackamo Road" and "Life Is Hard." But that doesn't dim the glow of the high points. The full-throttle "This May Not Be the End of the World," with Lonnie Pitchford's ricocheting slide guitar, is a brave, glimpsed-the-reaper answer to R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It." "The Full Catastrophe" soars with a survivor's wit and wisdom ("I was lovin' your wife/ While you were lovin' mine/And I'm glad to say I've enjoyed every day/Of the full catastrophe of life").

There's nothing here with the bull's-eye appeal of 1982's "Hurts So Good," no adolescent anthems like Mellencamp's No. 1 single "Jack and Diane." Now in his mid-40s, Mellencamp has turned his back on calculated Top 40 gestures in favor of mature theatrics and a thick sonic gumbo. A little uneven but unrepentant, Mr. Happy Go Lucky is a mixed bag in the best sense: rife with ghosts, a healthy fear and a cocky embrace of middle age.