Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Music Morsels Vol II - "Check It Out"

Back when I first started to get into music, when my music collection was still small but had started to gain some mass, I made a list of my 100 favorite songs (blogging impulses were clearly there long before there was blogging). And as time went on, I would periodically revisit the list, adding in new songs I had discovered and shuffling others as my tastes evolved. And yet every time I made my list, one song always took the top spot. Now, if I were to compile such a list today (and I just might!), I'm not sure that John Mellencamp's "Check It Out" would still come out on top. But it just might.

The Lonesome Jubilee remains, 20 years after its release, Mellencamp's best album. It's a distinctive, unified album that features a singular combination of county and rock elements that he's never since really combined in the same way. And "Check It Out," which was the second single released, I believe, is easily the album's highlight. The song starts with a crack of the snare a split second before the band comes in. We hear strummed guitar, bass, and drums, the meat and potatoes of rock music, but the primary element is not the electric guitar (which if it's present at all is doing rhythm work along with the acoustic) but an electric fiddle playing a high melody. It's this melody that forms the core of the song, and it's a gorgeous one - a sad, yet hopeful lyrical piece of music that speaks volumes in its quiet simplicity.

When Mellencamp comes in, after the fiddle has finished a complete rendition of this primary theme, it's over confident guitars and drums kicking out a steady beat:

A million young poets
Screaming out their words
To a world full of people
Just living to be heard
By future generations
Riding on the highways that we built
I hope they have a better understanding

This isn’t a verse, or early showing of the chorus, but rather a refrain that will reappear at the end of the song. The song, in fact, features no standard verse/chorus form – it’s structure is instead ABBA, with those central B sections comprising repetitions of the band-shouted phrase “Check it out!” with Mellencamp-sung pithy pictures in between.

The content here is familiar ground for Mellencamp – the changing of the guard that happens as one generation ages and another matures. My high school yearbook quote comes from Mellencamp, from the liner notes to Scarecrow actually, and it neatly encapsulates this recurring theme of his: “There is nothing sadder or more glorious than generations changing hands.” “Check It Out” is about this theme. That “I hope they have a better understanding” gets called back at the end of the song when Mellencamp repeats it five times, alternating the “hope” with “maybe.” The message is clear—while we all may like to believe that our children will learn from our mistakes and improve their lot and the world’s lot, that’s hardly a guarantee. You can hope for it, or look to its possible fruition, but you can’t bet on it.

The “verses,” for lack of a better word, paint a typical Mellencamp picture of lower-middle class life in the Midwest.

Go to work on Monday
Got yourself a family
All the utility bills have been paid
Can’t tell your best buddy that you love him

The music here is simple but effective, very American rock-based, with open chords and contended strumming. But after these lines the fiddle comes back and the chords darken, as Mellencamp questions the happiness of his typical family:

But where does our time go
Got a brand-new house in escrow
Sleeping with your back to your loved one
This is all that we’ve learned about happiness

Here that plaintive, searching fiddle theme repeats before we get to the second “verse” with middle-aged life being questioned. At the end of this verse comes one of my favorite Mellencamp lines: “Soaring with the eagles all week long/And this all that we’ve learned about living.” Here the strumming dies down and the guitar instead picks out an introductory bit of business that leads up to the fiddle reaching up to a high note, not once, not twice, but three times, each time it’s ascent halted by a gunshot drum blast. This leads into what in reality is a pretty conventional guitar solo that restates the main melody, but that in practice is actually very effective, this being the first time in the song we’ve really noticed any electric guitar. It’s also important to note that the tone of that solo is almost resigned, not triumphant at all.

After the break, we get that repetition of the A section again, with its final five-time repeat of the “understanding line.” And the tension Mellencamp achieves here, with each unresolved (lyrically and musically) “hope (or “maybe”) they’ll have a better understanding,” is quite effective. You can hear the weariness and the wariness in his voice as he keeps repeating the question, until he can’t take it anymore and the core fiddle melody returns to close out the song. That the question is never resolved is important, I think, and central to the song. After all, how well or not future generations fare is not something we really ever get to see for certain.

I still do love this song greatly, and while it’s “all-time top” spot would probably go to “Where the Streets Have No Name” these days, it’s still way, way up there.

Until Whenever

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