More Than Little Ditties
The induction of the irascible and oft-maligned John Mellencamp into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last night, got me to reminiscing about how much I actually like his music. As a teen, he was right up there with Sting as one of my favorite artists after U2, but these days that star has been eclipsed by artists like Neil Young, Elvis Costello, and Bob Dylan. Still, the odd shape to his career has, I think, contributed to what I think is a bit of an underrating (many bloggers and critics seemed to take umbrage at his induction, for example, seeing it as watering down of the Hall).
Mellencamp started as a studio creation (Johnny Cougar!) singing pop constructions designed for hit status. Accordingly, his first few albums are kind of disposable, the trashy fun of "I Need a Lover" notwithstanding. And, in his late career, he has settled into a kind of monotonous sameness of solid, uninspiring, heartland rock albums pumped up with lots of filler. But in between that beginning and end was a string of well-constructed, thematically integrated, tuneful and beautiful albums that stand up to similar strings of great albums from other acts. The albums in that stretch, all worth getting were:
Featuring such break-out hits as "Authority Song," "Crumbling Down,"and the song that just may be his career-defining song in the end, "Pink Houses" this was his first really mature work, and the one in which he cemented what would be a winning combination of social commentary, strong rock grooves, and off-model instrumentation.
The album that made him a star, a very socially grounded album, almost a protest album, that among the hits "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "ROCK in the USA," features two of his greatest songs, and proof that he had developed into a real songwriter - "Minutes to Memories" and "Between a Laugh and a Tear." If forced to choose just one, this is probably the album to get.
His best album. It doesn't have the hits of the previous two (although "Paper in Fire" made some noise), but it's the most cohesive of all his albums, and there's not a bum note or filler song in the bunch. It's also the most aggressive in terms of social commentary, and the most richly imagined in terms of the characters that populate the songs. "Check It Out" is unheralded, but it's Mellencamp's best work as a songwriter.
A smaller, more acoustic-feeling album that's probably his prettiest. Featured the wannabe-hit "Pop Singer," but is notable more for such gems as "Mansions in Heaven" and "Jackie Brown," a devastating little ballad about poverty.
The opening track, "Love and Happiness," is as tight and aggressive a little rock song as you could hope for, and the sardonic, cynical stance Mellencamp could take in song reaches its apex in the bitter and damning "Melting Pot."
The filler that starts to haunt the rest of his albums starts to rear its head here, but there are easily enough strong tracks - including the killer title track - to count this as an essential.
For a look at ten great Mellencamp songs, see here.