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John Mellencamp

   Chestnut Street Incident (MCA, 1976)
    A Biography (Riva UK, 1978)
    John Cougar (Mercury, 1979)
   Nothin' Matters and What If It Did (Mercury, 1980)
     American Fool (Mercury, 1982)
     Uh-huh (Mercury, 1983)
    The Kid Inside (Main Man, 1983)
     Scarecrow (Mercury, 1985)
    Early Years (Rhino, 1986)
     The Lonesome Jubilee (Mercury, 1987)
    Big Daddy (Mercury, 1989)
    Whenever We Wanted (Mercury, 1991)
    Human Wheels (Mercury, 1993)
     Dance Naked (Mercury, 1994)
     Mr. Happy Go Lucky (Mercury, 1996)
     The Best That I Could Do (1978–1988)
(Mercury, 1997)
    John Mellencamp (Columbia, 1998)
    Rough Harvest (Mercury, 1999)
     Cuttin' Heads (Columbia 2001)
     Trouble No More (Sony, 2003)
     Words & Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits (Island, 2004)
     Freedom's Road (Universal, 2007)
     Life, Death, Love and Freedom (Hear Music, 2008)

If rock & roll is often just a matter of attitude, it's no wonder John Mellencamp is a star: His understanding of pop mythology and his ability to play off of those myths is phenomenal. Whether or not that makes him a great rocker depends in part on how much stock you put into such cultural touchstones as classic rock, small-town life, and the American dream: Mellencamp's albums generally expect his listeners to believe in such things at least as fervently as he does.

It takes more than a leap of faith to be excited by his first five or six albums, however. Mellencamp launched his career as "Johnny Cougar," a sobriquet thrust upon him by then-manager Tony DeFries, and Chestnut Street Incident and The Kid Inside (which was cut in 1977 but not released until 1983) present an artist whose instincts run to recycled Stones riffs and Springsteen-derived braggadocio—an embarrassing combination. The Early Years contains highlights (loosely speaking) of both. Switching labels and management but still stuck with the name, he produced the import-only A Biography, which swaps Stonesisms for a sound closer to that of the Faces and is noteworthy only for having produced his first hit (in Australia, anyway), the casually sexist "I Need a Lover." John Cougar, which did see domestic release, also includes the song. Mellencamp plows ever deeper into the Great American Rock cliché with Nothin' Matters and What If It Did, which pushes his I'm-a-rebel posturing to ever more preposterous extremes.

What changed things was "Jack & Diane," a heartland slice-of-life number from American Fool. Although its lyrics rarely get more than ankle-deep, the music strikes an impressive balance between anthemic power and down-home intimacy, a combination Mellencamp returned to for much of Uh-Huh. Again, it isn't what he has to say that matters so much as how he says it, as "Pink Houses" couches its small-town odes in cleverly distilled Stones licks (note how the introduction recalls "Tumbling Dice") while "Authority Song" offers an agreeable update on Eddie Cochran's wild-youth raveups. Scarecrow is where he makes the most of this approach, with music so astonishingly eloquent that it easily outweighs the ideological overreach of songs like "Small Town" and the ludicrous "Justice and Independence '85."

Rather than refine that sound, Mellencamp took a sharp left turn with The Lonesome Jubilee, moving from heartland rock to an Appalachian-influenced sound that owed more to Desire-era Dylan than any Stones album. That's not to say the album abandons rock; just listen to "Rooty Toot Toot" or "Cherry Bomb." Big Daddy expands on that fiddle-driven sound, but its folkie flourishes and grand gestures seem to be largely rhetorical, while its songs, apart from the self-serving "Pop Singer," are unmemorable. Whenever We Wanted finds the singer returning to the straight-up, Stones-style guitar rock of Scarecrow and Uh-Huh, and though there's more than enough melodic appeal to the likes of "Love and Happiness" and "Get a Leg Up," the album's attempts at social commentary are overwrought.

With Human Wheels, Mellencamp turns unexpectedly depressive, offering dark, dreary songs that ask the listener to work harder than the music merits. Things perk up, however, with Dance Naked, in which Mellencamp again embraces the gutsy, physical aspects of rock & roll and tosses in a sterling cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night." That feel-good approach takes an unexpected turn with Mr. Happy Go Lucky, which finds Mellencamp collaborating with remix star Junior Vasquez, a guy more likely to work with Madonna than a rootsy rocker like Mellencamp. Nonetheless, the combination clicks, and there's a sizzle and spirit to the music that goes well beyond Mellencamp's usual.

After that happy experiment, Mellencamp left his old label, Mercury, for Columbia. Trouble was, he still owed Mercury two albums—hence the more-or-less greatest-hits collection The Best That I Could Do and the semilive odds-and-sods disc Rough Harvest. Meanwhile, John Mellencamp consolidates the country and urban influences of his last few Mercury studio albums into a vivid, diverse, and unexpectedly coloristic sound. And if the depth of such tracks as "Eden Is Burning" or the beat-driven "Break Me Off Some" comes as a surprise, at least it prepares you for Cuttin' Heads, which not only backs Mellencamp with a raucous, soulful sound, but actually includes a cameo by Public Enemy's Chuck D. Admittedly, the music on the album's political songs is more fully realized than the words are, but personal songs such as the mildly self-deprecating "Women Seem" are among his best. A pity, then, that Trouble No More follows up with mostly covers—well-chosen and beautifully sung, but covers nonetheless. He does provide some new, Dubya-bashing lyrics for the traditional "To Washington," but the album's greatest strengths are his readings of such blues classics as Memphis Minnie's "Joliet Bound" and Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway."

In 2004, Mellencamp released Words and Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits, his Mellencamp's only thorough, career-spanning retrospective. In a non-linear fashion it traces his entire career from 1978s "I Need A Lover" through the 2004 anti-Bush screed "Walk Tall." In 2007 Mellencamp re-emerged six years after his last album of original songs with the decidely dark and heavy Freedom's Road. Best remembered for the Chevrolet ad song "Our Country," the disc takes takes a harsh look at America in the midst of Bush's second term. "Rural Route" and "Ghost Town's Along The Highway" are far cry from the romanticized vision of middle America offered in "Small Town." The former deals with the true-life murder of a young girl who was traded by her father for drugs. It's impossible to get any heavier than that, but on 2008's Life, Death Love and Freedom Mellencamp sure tried. Alongside producer T-Bone Burnett, Mellencamp stripped down his music to its bones. With the exception of "My Sweet Love," the disc is a road-trip across an America blighted by racial intolerance, random violence and political corruption. Although the songs are unlikely to compete with "Hurts So Good" and "Cherry Bomb" for airplay, they represent some of the strongest work of Mellencamp's career.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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