John “Cougar” Mellencamp can’t help it. All he has to do is open his mouth and out oozes insincerity, the snake oil of patent imitations of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger. Or for good measure, he’ll pour on a little Tom Petty or Graham Parker. It’s not just Cougar’s hoarse, choked tenor that sounds overfamiliar; his secondhand serenades to teenage titillation at the car wash and the Tastee-Freez have also been heard elsewhere.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t buy a used car from this man, but his fifth album does motorvate somewhat. The engine is a tight, unpretentious Indiana band, and Cougar, who produced American Fool with engineer Don Gehman, seldom lets it idle. Guitarists Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic know how to raise a ruckus, and drummer Ken Aronoff is good at interrupting it with an authoritative thump. No extra chrome clutters the arrangements, which are so stripped down that even the simplest touches are telling. Thus, the alternating slap of electric guitar chords and an acoustic guitar’s tickle tease “Jack & Diane” into something far more memorable than Cougar’s clichéd account of “two American kids growin’ up in the heartland” would otherwise suggest. And a little dab of chiming percussion lends to “Close Enough” a catchy distinctiveness that Cougar’s vocal can’t provide.
It’s not easy being a working-class hero when your record-company bio refers to your family estate. But if Cougar still lacks character, at least his rock & roll is becoming more convincing.