In dedicating his last album, Scarecrow, to his grandfather, who had recently died, John Mellencamp wrote, “There is nothing more sad or glorious than generations changing hands.” That idea suffused the songs on Scarecrow, which was released in 1985, and it comes to the fore once again on Mellencamp’s complex, moving new album, The Lonesome Jubilee.
To state his theme this time, Mellencamp prints a passage from Ecclesiastes on the record jacket, one of many Biblical references that run through The Lonesome Jubilee. “Generations come and go but it makes no difference,” the passage goes. “Everything is unutterably weary and tiresome. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. … So I saw that there is nothing better for men than that they should be happy in their work, for that is what they are here for, and no one can bring them back to life to enjoy what will be in the future, so let them enjoy it now.”
The blending of fatalism and celebration, of the pleasures of life and the specter of death, evident in those verses makes The Lonesome Jubilee something like Mellencamp’s Nebraska. The rhythms are more exuberant and the arrangements are fuller on these ten songs than on Spring-steen’s grim masterpiece, but the chilling fear that some unknown, inexorable force in human affairs makes contentment impossible haunts both records. And just as Springsteen chose the directness of folk music for Nebraska, Mellencamp has laced his songs with Celtic and Appalachian folk instruments — hammer dulcimer, mandolin, penny whistle, Dobro and accordion. These evocative musical touches make the dilemmas of The Lonesome Jubilee seem that much more ancient and unchanging.
For this reason, the songs on The Lonesome Jubilee that address troubling social issues paradoxically provide the most reassuring moments on the record. The harsh, angular “Down and Out in Paradise” — with its desperate pleas to “dear Mr. President” from an unemployed worker, a homeless woman and an unhappy child — at least assumes a comprehensible system in which uncaring governmental figures can be held accountable for the suffering chronicled in the song. The prayerlike “We Are the People” — despite its foolishly misplaced sympathy for the “fortunate ones” (because “it’s lonely up there” and “nobody’s got it made”) — revives Sixties-style political rhetoric and warns manipulative leaders, “If you try to divide and conquer/We’ll rise up against you.”
But other songs on The Lonesome Jubilee suggest that the sources of people’s unhappiness reside at least partly within themselves or, more disturbingly, in the fabric of life itself. In the R&B-driven “Hard Times for an Honest Man,” Mellencamp blames bad economic conditions for the anger that causes a frustrated worker to abuse his family and for a woman’s emotional isolation. But the song also appears to imply that these people are responsible for internalizing and perpetuating their victimization — particularly when they are seen in contrast with the poverty-stricken couple of the previous song, “Empty Hands,” who refuse to replay society’s exploitation of them in their supportive marriage.
The Lonesome Jubilee is also filled with characters who betray their futures and willfully trivialize their lives by chasing shabby dreams. The man in “Paper in Fire,” the album’s hard-hitting opening track and first single, wants “love with no involvement,” and the guys in the poignant “Check It Out” manage to build material security but cheat on their lovers and stint on expressing their feelings toward their friends. Again and again on the album, Mellencamp counts the painful cost of these leaps of bad faith, stating the case most plainly in “Paper in Fire”: “There is a good life/Right across this green field/And each generation/Stares at it from afar/But we keep no check/On our appetites/So the green fields turn to brown/Like paper in fire.”
Interestingly, The Lonesome Jubilee seems to be an album concerned with the very real, if sometimes vague, dissatisfactions of early middle age — Mellencamp’s own time of life. Aging offers appreciation of the depths of life’s mysteries but no greater understanding of them, Mellencamp seems to be saying. “This is all that we’ve learned about happiness,” he says in “Check It Out,” his disbelief softened by his compassion. “This is all we’ve learned about living.” In their entrapment the characters in “The Real Life” believe there must be an existence more genuine and rewarding than their own, but they are completely unable to imagine what it might be. Despite its easygoing groove, “Cherry Bomb,” a nostalgic reflection on lost youth in the manner of “Glory Days,” speaks of a time in which “we were young and we were improvin'” — in implied contrast with the present on both scores.
The Lonesome Jubilee questions both the hotshot arrogance Mellencamp epitomized early in his career and the populist idealism he discovered around the time of Uh-Huh, in 1983. Despite his breakthrough to seriousness, his macho swagger has proved difficult to shake, while political convictions have failed to answer all his questions about the world and its ways. But as this album amply demonstrates — in its white-hot, slamming sound, courtesy of Don Gehman, as well as in the meanings of its songs — seeing the limits of youthful bluster doesn’t necessarily mean losing one’s gusto for life. And certainly testing the point of one’s beliefs need not predicate a descent into cynicism.
Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did, John Cougar once spat in an album title. Now John Cougar Mellencamp marvels at how much things matter and wonders why and to what end. That’s quite a distance traveled. “I guess it don’t matter how old you are/Or how old one lives to be,” Mellencamp tentatively concludes in “The Real Life.” “I guess it boils down to what we did with our lives/And how we deal with our own destinies.” If this feeling but unsentimental album doesn’t make for a particularly joyous jubilee, the universality of its concerns ensures that finally it isn’t all that lonesome, either.