It doesn’t seem right, using a word like mature to refer to a guy who used to bill himself as Little Bastard — but these days, the word is just about inescapable when you talk about John Mellencamp. For somebody whose work has always suggested a morbid fear of aging, he’s slipping into rock & roll’s version of middle age pretty damn gracefully: His tenth album — his fourth since he shocked a lot of people by getting good — isn’t a big leap forward the way 1983’s Uh-Huh and 1985’s Scarecrow were, and it doesn’t break new musical ground the way 1987’s Lonesome Jubilee did, and on the first few listenings it doesn’t have any singles as bracing as “Rain on the Scarecrow” or as irresistible as “Cherry Bomb.” Instead, it’s an assured, personal and, yeah, mature record, an exercise in consolidation and continuity and craftsmanship.
The first thing you notice is the way the album sounds. Like Springsteen, Petty and Seger, the other major American mainstream rockers who emerged during the past two decades, Mellencamp has a band whose distinctive sound alternately defines, inspires and limits him. Its signposts are the remarkable, lean whap of Kenny Aronoff’s drums and the gritty guitar rasp of Larry Crane: These guys make dirty, rough-hewn Stones-style rock that packs a real wallop. But unlike the E Street Band, the Heartbreakers and others of that ilk, Mellencamp’s mainstream rock band has, on The Lonesome Jubilee and now on Big Daddy, been distinguished by decidedly nonmainstream touches that give this thoroughly citified genre a touch of the Appalachian hills or the Southern bayous: fiddles, accordions, dulcimers, banjos, penny whistles.
The result is a sound more distinctive and refreshing than that of any of Mellencamp’s contemporaries. Certainly, it’s true that fiddles and accordions are the lead instruments in some of the most invigorating pop music being made today — from Louisiana’s Beausoleil to England’s Oyster Band — but it’s startling to find them on AOR radio. And for that reason alone, Big Daddy deserves attention.
Of course, the sound of the album is nothing new: Mellencamp toyed with this approach on some of Scarecrow, then developed it fully on The Lonesome Jubilee. And in the same way, the theme of Big Daddy returns to a vein he’s mined before: American dreams, and the difficulty of ever realizing them. You could listen to the album, take note of Mellencamp’s continued fondness for the heartland and borrow a movie title to describe it: Field of Dreams. Except there’s no Hollywood happy ending anywhere on the album.
Big Daddy picks up where the last verse of the single “Paper in Fire” left off; these are songs about the pursuit of dreams, in which the fever of that pursuit as often as not either destroys the dreams themselves or blinds the characters to what’s happening around them. It’s an album peopled by folks who run after their dreams so hard and so fast and for so long that they lose sight of what they were after to begin with: You could say that about the authority figure in the title track, about the wild teens who are “chasing after something/And neither one of them believing in nothing” and about the blinkered old fool who makes things worse for everybody and turns out to be a certain recently retired president of the United States. You could also say it, it seems, about a rich and famous rock star.
The landscape on Big Daddy is as bleak as it was on Scarecrow and Jubilee, but Mellencamp has for the most part dispensed with the folkish small-town narratives he was once known for — even though Big Daddy titles like “Martha Say” and “Theo and Weird Henry” and “Jackie Brown” and “Country Gentleman” would suggest otherwise. The first of those is a hardhearted sketch of a woman trying to remain independent, the second a piece of nostalgia that doesn’t sound half as jubilant as the last album’s “Cherry Bomb.” And “Country Gentleman,” which comes near the end of the album, suggests that Ronald Reagan just might be to blame for some of the mess evoked in the rest of these songs: “He ain’t a gonna help no poor man/He ain’t a gonna help no children/He ain’t a gonna help no women/He’s just gonna help his rich friends.”
Certainly, you could blame the country gentleman and his friends for what happens to Jackie Brown, Big Daddy‘s most fully drawn character both musically and lyrically. The song is the story of a man’s life, and if the details are a little predictable and a little maudlin — Jackie Brown has a wife and daughter; he can barely support them; he’s “going nowhere and nowhere fast”; he dies; nobody cares — the music gives him life and makes his story heartbreaking. The spare, lonely ballad is set to one of Mellencamp’s finest and most delicate arrangements: a couple of softly picked acoustic guitars, a skeletal dream beat, an understated accordion, the soft cry of a fiddle playing an absolutely lovely melody.
But there’s another life story that emerges on this album, too, more fully than it has since the days when the younger and more foolish Mellencamp would use his albums as display cases for his hardass, don’t-give-a-damn cynicism. This is the story of another dreamer, one who avidly pursued his goals and wound up a rock star and now makes music, works for good causes and still wonders why he doesn’t feel satisfied. Certainly, some of this story sounds self-serving: Are we really supposed to believe that the guy who let a manipulative manager change his name to Johnny Cougar “never wanted to be no pop singer”? But at the same time, it’s impressive to see Mellencamp step out from behind his characters to confess his uncertainties (especially in the disquieting “Void in My Heart”) and ask the frankly baffled query of the final song, “J.M.’s Question”: “What kind of world do we live in?”
To his credit, Mellencamp doesn’t supply any easy answers; for some time now he’s spent more time asking the hard questions than figuring out the answers, and Big Daddy breaks no new ground on that or any other front. In fact, what’s missing from the album is the kind of transcendent single or two that has surfaced on the last few albums. But then again, Big Daddy is consistent, and it happily lacks any songs as superficial or marginal as, say, “Hotdogs and Hamburgers” or “You’ve Got to Stand for Somethin’.”
In the end, you’ve got to admire a guy who, even with his inbred pessimism, still has the sense of humor about himself to write “Pop Singer”; who has the talent to build that song and others around great, grungy riffs; who still prefers to make things sound rustic or raw rather than slick; and who’s open enough that his relentlessly bleak cynicism sounds less like annoying bluster and more like honest concern and befuddlement. A guy who’s matured, you might say.