John (Cougar) Mellencamp: The Definitive Remasters-Part II
Now there's a void in my heart
And a hole in my dreams.
-“Void In My Heart” 1989
In the annals of rock n’ roll history, John Mellencamp has one of the most impressive runs of album releases by any artist between 1982 through 1994. Every album was a near certified masterpiece. While his albums did not receive the same attention the likes of Bruce Springsteen or U2 received, his albums were more consistent during this period than any other act, bar none. He was constantly challenging himself and evolving as an artist; there were no four-year waits between albums. The most pregnant pause he took was between 1989’s “Big Daddy” and 1991’s “Whenever We wanted” which in Def Leppard terms would be considered miraculous.
Last month we covered the first batch of remasters from one of the most artistic and prolific artists of the last quarter century, here is Part II; arguably the preeminent albums in his catalog.
Released during the same year he helped co-found “Farm Aid”, “Scarecrow” stands as John Mellencamp’s masterpiece. Twenty-years after its initial release, it does not sound dated in any way. It could have been recorded just a few months ago. What makes “Scarecrow” an unqualified masterpiece was Mellencamp’s ability to challenge himself and his listener. He could have stayed on course with pure rock along the lines of “Hurts So Good”, but he branched out and expanded his world. He dug the heels of his boots deep and recorded one of the defining records of the 80’s. To this day, the majority of this album is still performed live. It’s the soundtrack to Middle America the same way “Darkness…” and “Born To Run” were to lower class New Jersey. Mellencamp transcends all musical boundaries with an album that is as raw as it is rustic. Listening to it makes one feel like they are paging through an old photo album, it’s a piece of Americana at its best. Despair and dreams are at the center of the album; the struggles of the heartland (“Rain On The Scarecrow”, “Small Town”), Friday night fun (“Lonely Ol’ Night”, “Minutes To Memories”) and the pure escapism that music gives to the soul (“Rumbleseat”, “ROCK In The USA”) are all showcased in a rousing anthemic album one can raise their fist to when listening to. There are songs of hope, redemption, anguish and searching for truth in the heartland of Reagan's America. This was the album Springsteen should have made with "Born In The USA".
Standout tracks: "Small Town", "R.O.C.K. In The USA", "Lonely Ol' Night", "Rumbleseat", "Rain On The Scarecrow"
Lost Gems: “Between A Laugh & A Tear”, "Minutes To Memories"
Bonus Track: “Small Town” (acoustic)
Album Grade: A
“The Lonesome Jubilee” (1987)
Fast forward two-years and the countrified sounds found on "Scarecrow" were taken to the next level as Lisa Germano shines with her violin, melding a perfect blend of country and rock music. Today, this album would receive airplay on country radio. The musical texture on "The Lonesome Jubilee" is unlike anything else released in 1987 and it's almost shocking this album yielded three top-fifteen hits. The album was heralded as a masterpiece upon its release something I agree with today as I listened to the sharp and crisp sounding remaster. Producer Don Gehman gives the album a natural and earthy feeling to it. In fact, two of Mellencamp's lesser albums were his self-titled disc from 1998 and 1996's "Mr. Happy Go Lucky", where the production blinded one to the message and meaning of the songs. Just last October during a Vote For Change concert, Mellencamp performed "We Are The People", a forgotten track from this album. The themes, all of which were written in 1987, are still valid today, eighteen years later. Unlike "Scarecrow", "The Lonesome Jubilee" is underrepresented during live performances. Aside from the three singles, the only other track performed with any kind of regularity was "The Real Life". I was shocked to find as many hidden gems as I did..."Down & Out In Paradise", "Empty Hands" and "Rooty Toot Toot" were all but forgotten from my memory as I never see Mellencamp perform them. He has a treasure chest of goodies here on this one album and one wonders why he ignores such potent and relevant music for hard times? Regardless of whether he plays these songs live or not, they have found a new life on this most recent remaster.
Of this second batch of remasters, all of the bonus tracks had been previously released, except for this album. "Blues From The Front Porch" is a bluegrass number where Mellencamp does not even lend vocals. It's a lost gem and a welcomed one. This song would not have been out of place on 2003's "Trouble No More", his bluegrass record. Toby Myers, Pat Peterson and Crystal Taliefero lend their vocal stylings to a song so first-rate, I find it hard to believe it has not been released before now. One can only wonder what Mellencamp has sitting in his vaults. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a box set.
Standout tracks: "Paper In Fire", "Check It Out", "Cherry Bomb", "The Real Life"
Lost Gems: “We Are The People", “Empty Hands”
Bonus Track: "Blues From The Front Porch"
Album Grade: A-
“Big Daddy” (1989)
In the spring of 1989, "Big Daddy" was quickly rising to the top of the charts when "Pop Singer" cracked the top-twenty. Then all of a sudden, it disappeared without a trace. Mellencamp chose to not promote his final album with the name of "Cougar" attached to it. It's a shame he chose not to support it; it is the diamond in the rough of his catalog. It's easy to dismiss the record as it's a much more subdued sound and more melancholy tunes that did not quite rock out the same way the material on all his previous records had. This was Melencamp's "Nebraska" as it showed a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis. He was going through a divorce right at the time of it's release and aside from an appearance on David Letterman, his lone support for the album were videos for "Pop Singer" and the second single, "Jackie Brown", which just missed cracking the Top-40. Here was a man who deep down did not have peace of mind, no matter how much success he had achieved. He was still unfulfilled. Over the years, I have re-discovered “Big Daddy” on more than one occasion. "To Live", "Void In My Heart", "Mansions In Heaven" all find an artist in crisis yearning for simpler times and a unified family. He has struggled with his demons and in 1989, had not yet overcome them.
I recently saw Mellencamp perform "Big Daddy of Them All" acoustically in concert, with a sped up tempo, and the arrangement shed a completely new light upon it. He claims he wrote it about someone he knew, but I feel the character he based it on was himself. This was the album where nothing was left concealed. When he recorded this album, he made sure the world knew he was struggling with his place in the world. He even takes a shot at Ronald Reagan, who had just left office mere months earlier, with "Country Gentleman". "Big Daddy" is one of Mellencamp's quietest albums, however, those who write it off for its simplicity are missing out, and it is a remarkable album of a man in crisis. Shortly after the summer of 1989, John Mellencamp began to paint and disappeared completely from the musical landscape for close to two years.
Standout tracks: “Pop Singer", "Martha Say", "Big Daddy of Them All"
Lost Gems: “To Live”, "Void In My Heart", "Mansions In Heaven"
Bonus Track: “Jackie Brown" (acoustic)
Album Grade: A-
“Whenever We Wanted” (1991)
Two weeks after Nirvana's "Nevermind" landed in record stores and three weeks after Guns N' Roses double-disc opus "Use Your Illusion" debuted, John Mellencamp was reborn. October 8, 1991 saw the release of "Whenever We Wanted", the first album to be released under the last name he would ever use; John Mellencamp. “Whenever We Wanted” found Mellencamp striving forward and all but abandoning the accordion, fiddle and heartland music he had perfected over his last three albums. "Whenever We Wanted" showcases the thunderous return of the electric guitar. Not only is it a fine return to form, but he has turned up the volume producing his heaviest record to date. Right from the get go, the socially sonic conscious track, "Love & Happiness" sets the theme with thick crunching riffs that would not let up until the disc has spun all ten tunes. While the album is arguably his weakest since "American Fool", that is not necessarily a bad thing. Mellencamp took the pastoral sounds as far as he could go with "Scarecrow", "The Lonesome Jubilee" and "Big Daddy". Here the music is stripped to the bare minimum. While Lisa Germano's violin is absent from the entire recording, guitarists Mike Wanchic and David Grissom lead the attack with their dueling guitars while drummer Kenny Arnoff and bassist Toby Myers keep the beat as John Cansella fills in colors with his Hammond B-3 organ to the guitar heavy record. The tour in support of the album is viewed by most Mellencamp fans as his defining moment as a live performer. The album has more in common with "American Fool" than "The Lonesome Jubilee", yet lyrically he was expanding his themes to world views (which he would continue to do with his next few albums) on songs like “Now More Than Ever”, “Last Chance” and “Love & Happiness”. However, at the end of the day, the delight of the perfect pop tune could still be heard on “Again Tonight” and “Get A Leg Up” showing that when you least expect it, one can still go home.
Standout Tracks: "Get A Leg Up", "Now More Than Ever", “Again Tonight", "Love & Happiness"
Lost Gems: "Last Chance" &”Melting Pot”
Bonus Track: "Love & Happiness" (London Club Mix)
Album Grade: B+
The final and third installment of the John Mellencamp remaster series will be reviewed next month.