A number of times in the last few years I have put on a Mellencamp album with the intention of talking about it on the podcast and come up with some reason not to talk to about, so I’ve never given any of them the full three listens I want to give any record before Ir review it. So this is the first one I’ve gotten that far with.
See, the problem for me is not so much Mellencamp himself but what he represents (to me). I do not like Heartland Rock in concept nor, usually, in execution. In many ways Heartland Rock is the polar opposite of punk – it’s more nostalgic than angry, it’s more polished than authentic, it’s far more about blue collar pride than it is about changing the world. At least, that’s the caricature.
And when I’ve listened to Mellencamp in the past I’ve mostly just heard well done Heartland Rock, strong melodies, enough of a roots vibe to distinguish it from whatever was mainstream at the time, but also lots of polish for roots music, and way too safe for my liking.
But Mellencamp is a pretty good songwriter. He has a very strong sense of melody and his lyrics are above average. It’s not so much his songs that I don’t like but his aesthetic. If he had more of an edge to him, this probably wouldn’t be the first record of his I managed to listen to enough to review.
And the aesthetic here is no better than on any of his other records I’ve heard (with one notable exception). I don’t like polished roots music and this is polished roots music. Everything is very professional and there are lots of instruments on each track (not to mention backing vocals).
But the songs are so strong and Mellencamp is such a good performer that he’s sort of worn me down. This is good, even though it’s my thing. I have no idea whether it’s his best album or not, but I imagine it’s up there. Its unrelenting quality has just won me over.
And then there’s “Jackie O,” a song he co-wrote with John Prine, a superior songwriter (Mellencamp says it was mostly Prine’s), which also has the rawest, least polished, most fun arrangement on the record, which hints that Mellencamp could be even more than he is, if he would just vary his sound more.
Because that’s the problem for me with Mellencamp; I’m not sure I want to listen to 20+ albums with the same damn aesthetic, looking for his best songs, or his rare deviations from his sound. I’m glad I listened to this but, given my reactions to his other records I’ve heard, I feel like he is very much a well-curated “Best of” artist, rather than someone you should always listen to.