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 AllMusic.com 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.