John Mellencamp

Words & Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits (Island '04) Rating: A-
Heartland rocker John Mellencamp may not be the most exciting or original artist - certainly he owes a debt to the Stones, CCR, and most notably Springsteen - but he sure has written a lot of good songs over the years, the best of which can be found on this generous 37-track, 2-cd compilation, which effectively replaces 1997's too brief 14-track collection The Best That I Could Do (1978-1988). He's delivered his share of good albums over the years, probably peaking in the mid-'80s with Scarecrow (1985) and The Lonesome Jubilee (1987), but Mellencamp has always been a song oriented radio artist, and as such his work lends well to the compilation format. I don't have every John Mellencamp album, but I do have a bunch of them and I'm hard pressed to find any glaring omissions; if anything you could argue that maybe the compilation is a tad overly generous since not every song is top-notch. The majority of these songs are really good, however, even though I consider only a handful of them ("Pink Houses," "Rain On The Scarecrow," "Check It Out," "Small Town," "Cherry Bomb," "Hurt So Good," "Ain't Even Done With The Night," "Jack and Diane") to be genuinely great. Really, this album is all that most people will need; other well-known songs such as "Crumblin' Down," "Authority Song," "Lonely Ol' Night," "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," "Rumbleseat," "Paper In Fire," "Get A Leg Up," his cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night" with Me'shell Ndegeocello, and "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)" are also present, as are should've been bigger hits that underperformed on the charts such as "Love and Happiness," "Human Wheels," "Just Another Day," "I'm Not Running Anymore," and "Peaceful World" (a duet with India.Arie). And though some might find fault with its non-chronological sequencing, which would've worked better as far as showing his artistic growth over the years, it works well if you consider it a random playlist, plus there are some inspired sequencing choices, such as "Check It Out" leading into the similarly uplifting and catchy "Peaceful World."

John Mellencamp's career was an improbable success story when you consider that he started out underachieving for several years as "Johnny Cougar," a name chosen by his former manager Tony DeFries without his consent that he never felt comfortable with. He had some minor early hits, the most notable being "I Need A Lover" (with its famous extended guitar intro and catchy chorus) and "Ain't Even Done With The Night" (arguably his best straight up ballad), but it wasn't until 1982's American Fool that he really found significant U.S. success, primarily because of the smash hit singles “Jack And Diane” and “Hurt So Good;” the former in particular was a catchy "little ditty" that showed a newfound maturity to his songwriting. Having tasted some success, 1983's Uh huh was the album where Mellencamp sought to be taken seriously as an artist, first by taking back his real name (although he temporarily kept the “Cougar” moniker as his middle name, presumably as a compromise with his record company), then by releasing his best, most consistent album to date, highlighted by the hits “Crumblin’ Down,” “The Authority Song,” and especially the classic “Pink Houses” (love those "ooh yeah" and "yeah yeah yeah's" there towards the end).

Scarecrow was where John Mellencamp really hit his stride artistically and commercially, resulting in a highly intelligent and accomplished brand of rootsy rock n’ roll. Now a worldwide star, Mellencamp still extolled the values and lifestyle of his heartland roots while showing empathy toward the working class stiffs who make such small towns tick. In particular, Mellencamp went to bat for the struggling farmers, and he managed to help bring their difficult plight to public consciousness with the memorably moody "Rain On The Scarecrow" (as well as with his involvement with Farm Aid). He backed up his occasionally preachy sermonizing with a sparse, energetic, bare bones attack that showcased his spunky singing and tight, accomplished band (of particular note is stellar drummer Kenny Aranoff). The singles this time included the aforementioned "Rain On The Scarecrow" as well as “Lonely Ol’ Night,” “Rumbleseat,” “R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.,” and "Small Town," arguably the quintessential Mellencamp song (I love its simple message and his Bruce-like moans and "ooh yeahs"). On Scarecrow Mellencamp imbued his pop songs with a socially conscious center while still managing to hit the upper reaches of the charts, which was quite a feat, really.

The Lonesome Jubilee has a really rootsy feel, propelled in large part by the fiddle of Lisa Germano (who later went onto a successful solo career) and one of the best backing bands in the business, including the prominently powerful backing vocals of Crystal Taliefero (many of Mellencamp's songs feature female backing vocals, it should be noted). This album is a collection of vignettes (insert Springsteen comparison here), generally concerning good people going through tough times, but the often joyous music contrasts with the largely downcast lyrics. Mellencamp continued to show that he was storyteller of note, and the album is infused with hope, making it an uplifting experience overall. Hit singles included “Paper In Fire,” “Check It Out,” “The Real Life,” and the nostalgic “Cherry Bomb,” but again Mellencamp came out on top artistically uncompromised. No longer a joke but a consistently strong and admired performer, this "Cougar"-less album cemented his reputation and it stands as one of his career high points.

There have been many albums since: the somber Big Daddy, the stripped down, Stones-y Whenever We Wanted, the atmospheric Human Wheels, the slight but tuneful Dance Naked, the dance-tinged Mr. Happy Go Lucky, and so on. I haven't really followed him much the past 15 or so years, because aside from a few tracks here and there radio stopped playing his new material, not because it was no longer good (at least based on the evidence of most of the songs on this compilation), but because most modern radio sucks! It's not just him; when is the last time you heard a new song from other old timers like Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Tom Petty, or Bob Seger (another guy Mellencamp is often compared to)? But I digress; again, Mellencamp isn't the most exciting musician around, as there is a genericness to some of his songs, but he often spices things up by using unusual instrumentation such as accordions and fiddles. In any event, there were certainly a lot worse choices for the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame (there were a lot of better choices too but that is an argument for a different day), into which he was inducted in 2008, and most of the songs that made that possible are on Words & Music, which makes a pretty convincing case for his worthiness.

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