With "Hurts So Good," his breakthrough 1982 single, John Cougar Mellencamp came on tough, a rocker pitting earthy 4/4 rhythms and guitar crunch against the synthesizer fantasists of postmodern pop. A Hoosier hothead dubbing himself Little Bastard — a nickname copped from James Dean — he flashed a rolling stone's persona, endearingly disaffected and uncouth but more than a tad adolescent.
By the decade's end, however, and with the release of a stellar quartet of albums, Uh-Huh, Scarecrow, Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy, the outlaw had evolved immeasurably, his private cynicism becoming an empathetic, universalized discontent. If not quite a high-wattage Woody Guthrie, the Farm Aid activist laid legitimate claim to inheriting Creedence Clearwater Revival's mantle — his lyrics demonstrated a glorious radio-active populism. Musically, too, the songwriter had grown, with fiddles and accordions lending gypsy grace to his sturdy backbeat.
Whenever We Wanted returns Mellencamp to full-out rock — and while it lacks the rich texture of his last two albums, it hits with sheer, sudden impact. Assault guitars and a Last Judgment trumpet on "Love and Happiness" lead off the album, and Mellencamp's band, propelled by drummer Kenny Aronoff — America's answer to Charlie Watts — has never played tighter. "Love and Happiness" and "They're So Tough" assail privilege and power with righteous fury, their streamlined urgency succeeding at one of the record's apparent tasks — making message music that compromises nothing in the way of hip-shaking sass. Notes of a more personal agony, "I Ain't Ever Satisfied" and "Last Chance" also flourish lean strength, with guitarist David Grissom (replacing longtime Mellencamp ally Larry Crane) proving himself equally capable of power-chord bite and twang-bar atmospherics.
The album suffers, however, from incohesiveness and a few lame cuts — the ménage à trois wishful thinking of "Get a Leg Up" is sophomoric, the "chick as predator" shtick of "Crazy Ones" is better left to Loverboy or Ratt, and neither song boasts music strong enough to overcome the wrongheaded lyrics. Recovering with the bleakly compassionate "Melting Pot" and the lover's homage to a partner rebel, "Whenever We Wanted" — which features the album's best lyrics: "She's wrestling in the bones/With confetti in her hair" — Mellencamp displays his more salutary instincts, and the self-deprecating "Again Tonight" is a fine, loose-limbed stomper, a call for physical release.
On Whenever We Wanted, Mellencamp delivers no single anthem of the power of Scarecrow's "Small Town," nor any story-song as closely observed as Big Daddy's phenomenal "Jackie Brown" — instead, he relies on sonic muscle and a more condensed style of lyrics to get his points across. And at his best, Mellencamp continues to make points — about the soul's restlessness and the heart's difficult hopes. In an age of entertainers he remains a more necessary, angrier force — a voice of conscience, looking inward and speaking out.