John Couger was something of a joke. On the five albums he recorded between 1976 and 1980, he offered pleasant radio music, but nothing worth pondering once the next song started blasting out of the car-radio speakers. Then he got serious with "Jack and Diane," which took a dull, poorly conveyed romance and used it as a springboard for and equally unfocused ideology. The song was culled from American Fool, an LP that deserved its title.
The multiplatinum Uh-Huh, in '83, changed that. "Pink Houses," the album's standout, irrevocably upped Mellencamp's artistic ante. (And reverting to his real surname won him back some personal respect.) Simultaneously an affirmation of traditional American values and a damnation of what they have become, "Pink Houses" melded Mellencamp's populist politics with an anthemic backing that made it a natural hit. He couldn't maintain that high level for the length of the LP, but such songs as the Stonesy "Crumblin' Down" and the Bobby Fuller Four homage "Authority Song" raised expectations that Mellencamp was going to become a major voice.
On Scarecrow, John Mellencamp accepts that challenge even as he hangs on to a vestige of his previous incarnation. Some of the old vices remain: lyrical overreach or obviousness pervades half the album and the two explicit tributes to the music he grew up to lack the excitement of the originals. But at its best, Scarecrow brings both Mellencamp's Sixties-rock fixation and his fiercely patriotic distrust of big business and big politics into the muck of the modern world, with scintillating results.
A deeply felt sense of responsibility and an equally motivating need to atone for past missteps seem to define Scarecrow. On the midtempo "Minutes to Memories," Mellencamp tells the story of a young boy riding home to Indiana after a trip to the South. In the next seat on the bus is a seventy-seven-year-old retired steelworker lecturing the child on how to live, backing his advice with experience. "My family and friends are the best things I've known," he instructs, and the child, a budding rebel, chuckles to himself at how out of touch the old dog is.
Easing into the final verse, Mellencamp hushes his band. In a voice just above a whisper, he suddenly shifts the tale from third to first person. He's the kid on the Greyhound, and his inability to comprehend, let alone act on, the wisdom he was given then still haunts him: "Now that I'm older I can see he was right." And then Mellencamp reveals that he's telling this story to his own son. He knows he's being silently scoffed at as surely as his travel companion was two decades earlier. Still, he accepts it, and the band rocks out.
Mellencamp can now maintain this kind of intensity for more than a single track. "Between a Laugh and a Tear" is a gorgeous, riveting duet with Rickie Lee Jones that takes Jack and Diane into adulthood, where they've grown into interesting characters. The humor of "Rumbleseat" is as darkly droll as that of Prizzi's Honor. The enticing "Lonely Ol' Night" is a radio hit far more purposeful than, say, "Hurts So Good," and "Rain on the Scarecrow" is a painstakingly detailed portrait of a third-generation farmer about to lose all he's ever touched. "There's no legacy for you now," the narrator tells his son, and the mixture of horror and resignation is as on target as Bruce Springsteen's "My Hometown" or Blaster Dave Alvin's "Common Man."
Those two are important connections. Like Springsteen and Alvin, Mellencamp has learned that writing "smaller" makes one's work both tighter and more relevant: little victories are often the most salient. Conceptually, Scarecrow isn't as focused as Born in the U.S.A. or the Blasters' Hard Line (both Mellencamp and co-producer Don Gehman made important contributions to the latter), but Mellencamp shares with those artists utter terror at the Reagan administration's assault on working-class America. When Mellencamp sings that he can't recognize the face of the nation anymore, he's not grandstanding — he's articulating for a growing underclass that's being stripped of everything, starting with its voice. Mellencamp's refusal to move to either glamorous coast from his Southern Indiana base illustrates his commitment to his roots and ensures his insulation from the false standards a big city imposes.
Mellencamp's stance wouldn't matter as much as it does if his music wasn't as mature and concise as it is. Like many rockers who came of age in the early Seventies, Mellencamp apparently worships Exile on Main Street, not a bad starting point. The musical and production values of the Rolling Stones have had a strong influence on this band. Guitarists Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic have perfected their Keith Richards-Mick Taylor moves, but never on Scarecrow do Crane and Wanchic deteriorate into a glorified cover band. They have been studying the Stones' recording methods, though.
Recorded at Mellencamp's own Belmont Mall studio, the sound is intentionally low tech, built around Kenny Aronoff's enormous snare-drum beat. The sinewy mix is all drums and guitar, with Toby Myers' bass and John Cascella's keyboards emphasized sparingly and strategically. One big exception is "Justice and Independence '85" (dry funk similar to R.E.M.'s "Can't Get There from Here"), in which the propulsive rhythms, complemented by tight horns, make Mellencamp's stillborn poetic devices less annoying.
Scarecrow is a transitional album. Mellencamp has yet to completely shed the dopey bad-boy image that infected his early work — "You've Got to Stand for Somethin'" and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute to 60's Rock)" glorify false rebellion. But "Minutes to Memories," "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Between a Laugh and a Tear" suggest a formidable talent just beginning to emerge.
Mellencamp is no longer a product labeled Johnny Cougar. He has grown up, but his passion shows no sign of diminishing. He sees an American dream dying around him, but he intends to go down fighting. Even if authority always wins.