John Mellencamp: Words & Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits

Hank Kalet

John Mellencamp

Words & Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits

Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2004-10-19
UK Release Date: Available as import

John Mellencamp turned 53 this year and while he may be starting to look his age, he retains the energy and musical power of many younger artists. His shows remain powerful and lively and his focus on what is happening in the world keeps him sounding fresh even as the music business seems intent on moving beyond him.

Listening to Words & Music: John Mellencap's Greatest Hits, it can be easy to forget that the Indiana-born rocker has been writing, recording and touring for more than 28 years. The two-disc set's structure compresses time by ignoring chronology. And at the same time, the listener can trace the development of Mellencamp's songwriting across time, as he grew from being a fairly typical rocker in the late 1970s to the more socially aware and committed performer who spent much of the month of October touring the Midwest with Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds as part of the Vote For Change concerts.

Mellencamp's earliest records –- in particular, the forgettable Chestnut Street Incident, The Kid Inside and A Biography -- offered fairly conventional material, but little in the way of record sales or notoriety. They were the brainchild of his then-manager, Tony DeFries, who attempted to position the young Indiana rebel as a heartland David Bowie or more polished version of Bruce Springsteen. Their absence from the newest compilation is an indication of just how unrepresentative they are of Mellencamp's career.

"I knew that those records were terrible but I was a 22-year-old kid," he told Rolling Stone in a 2001 interview. "I'd never really written songs. I'd never been in the studio before. I was in a band and we did cover songs in bars, and the idea of writing songs was really foreign to me."

In 1979, however, he released Johnny Cougar, re-released later that year as John Cougar, which yielded Mellencamp's first real success, the top-40 hit "I Need a Lover", which Pat Benetar took even higher up the charts several years later. The follow up, Nothin' Matters and What If It Did, produced by the legendary Steve Cropper of Booker T & The MGs, managed two other hits, "This Time" and the sexy "Ain't Even Done With the Night", the best of his early songs.

While the albums enjoyed moderate success, they only teased the listener with the sound that Mellencamp would develop in the years to come –- a sound that Stephen Thomas Erlwine on described as a "Stonesy blend of hard-rock and folk-rock" that helped him carve his own niche, "his own variation of the heartland rock of Springsteen, Tom Petty and Bob Seger."

It wasn't until 1982, with the release of the number-one smash American Fool that Mellencamp –- still recording under the name of John Cougar –- managed to record and release something that he felt was representative. The album, which had more of a roots-rock flavor than anything he had done previously, offered a mix of love songs and stories, and spawned two monster hits, "Hurts So Good" and the number-one single "Jack and Diane".

"Jack and Diane" is probably the lynchpin in Mellencamp's growth as a songwriter. It tells the story of Jack and Diane, "young lovers with nothing else to do" who run off to get married. Set atop an almost cheerful melody and rhythm track, Mellencamp tells the story without sentiment -– you can tell from his voice that he likes and respects these characters, and that he refuses to abuse that respect by adding a coat of varnish to the tale.

"Jack and Diane" provide the best lens through which to view Mellencamp's songwriting -– each successive song and each successive album building on the notion that the stories and emotions put forth have to be real.

Building on American Fool's chart success, Mellencamp began the process by which he would reclaim his identity, releasing the poweful Uh-Huh, which featured "Crumblin' Down", "Pink Houses" and "The Authority Song" (all included on the new compilation), under the name of John Cougar Mellencamp. (He eventually would drop the "Cougar" entirely.)

Uh-Huh explored themes that Mellencamp would return to over and over again, themes of self-reliance and human connection, a commitment to making the world better and fighting for change and the sense that life is to be lived now and not put off.

The two albums that followed -- Scarecrow, his first overtly political statement and probably his best, and The Lonesome Jubiliee, a more melancholy release that explored many of the same issues and concerns of Scarecrow -- were also smashes.

Words and Music brings all of this together (35 songs on two discs, plus DVD of five videos), recontextualizing his pre-"Jack and Dianne" music by shuffling the chronology, allowing great songs like "Ain't Even Done With the Night" to stand alongside the sly "When Jesus Left Birmingham" from 1993 's Human Wheels or "Teardrops Will Fall" from 2003's album of blues and country covers, Trouble No More.

The disc also features two great new songs, produced by Edmonds, the political folk-rocker "Walk Tall" and "Thank You", songs that fit seamlessly within the Mellencamp milieu.

What the disc's organization does is make obvious Mellencamp's basic songwriting style, which is to build on the rock, folk and soul he grew up with. It is similar to the way Bob Dylan has always relied on traditional folk, rock and country song templates to build his songs, or that Springsteen has stayed musically within the rather narrow confines of rock and folk. By staying within their musical selves, they have been able to focus on telling powerful stories and conveying the truths that too often are ignored by popular musicians.

Jann Wenner in his liner notes for Words and Music sums up Mellencamp's career best: "With John, what you see is what you get: a cantankerous, committed and passionate rock and roller. One of the very, very best."

This compilation demonstrates that.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.