This is my second favourite album by John Mellencamp, who had to keep adding the nickname `Cougar' to his own, since a record company had forced him to start under the name Johnny Cougar in 1976! This LP was one of his most successful worldwide, with 4 singles released from it. I love most of the tracks; my very favourite is `Empty Hands' **** co-written with JM's long-time collaborator George Green (now deceased): it has a subtle pathos to it, it pulls at my heart everytime, it sounds as if it is going to go upbeat and rise, but it remains just under the surface with a desperation that is perfectly understated, if not by the words, by the tune and the folk violin.
The overall sound or genre here is folk rock with a variety of traditional instruments such as mandolin, banjo, dobro, dulcimer, fiddle, harmonica, penny whistle, accordion, melodica, autoharp, claves, cowbell, tambourine... and surprisingly a saxophone too. You could say it was the fashion at the time, but here it is perfectly crafted and does not sound over-produced or fake. The previous album in 1985 was a rock album containing many songs about the social problems facing Americans, especially in the countryside, it was full of anger and disappointment. With this one, JM raises some more global issues I feel; in other words people around the world could and did relate to it. I grew up in Continental Europe and English was not my native tongue, however this album really got my heart beating stronger at the time. Moreover, it has aged well, it is still very warm and loving, full of compassionate ideas springing from all the disappointed lives Mellencamp describes in his songs. Yes, the lyrics are uncovering some tough experiences, there is hurt everywhere. But, at the same time, the stories are mostly short portraits juxtaposed, to give a hint of what might be shocking out there. It's a little bit of social impressionism, it's not didactic (except if you feel the "Dear Mr. President" is directly addressed to you!) Be in no doubt though, it's a album with a conscience and it's not hiding away from it. I find, it is perfectly matched with the very natural feel of the music. It flows very well and helps swallowing the bitter pill, you could say. I don't think any real solution is offered and possibly the blame is laid at the feet of the politicians - or is it the shame?
The current recession brings back an album like this into actuality, sadly for the state of our economy, but in musical terms it proves that these songs are still relevant, touching and very well written.
Amongst all these songs about social hardship: `Paper in Fire' **** `Down and Out in Paradise' **(*), `Check It Out' ***, `The Real Life' **, `We Are The People' ***, `Hard Times for an Honest Man' *(*) ... there is some comic relief, with some great tracks recounting some anecdotal life events in a tongue-in-cheek mode (probably not true life at all, but seemingly honest, simple, touching and quite amusing) `Rooty Toot Toot' ***, `Cherry Bomb' ****. To be fair, there is also some irony at every possible turn: it is Mellencamp writing the songs! I have pasted this as an example: "If you are one of the fortunate ones, We all know it's lonely up there, We understand that nobody's got it made, So our thoughts are with you." Yes, in this album, there is humour and determination as well as sadness and desperation; a much more grown up JM, compared to the album Scarecrow.
My least fav track is `Hotdogs and Hamburgers' * (the story about an Indian girl and a white boy meeting) but it's only my own personal preferences here. On this album, the atmosphere remains the same all along, there is no break in the mood, which is great, because a different kind of song thrown in there, would take away from the other tracks. Here, JM did not try to showcase his talent and all the variety of rock music we know he is capable of producing. He sings from one voice and therefore he has perfectly communicated some overwhelming emotion(s). It is a lovely album, I warmly recommend it.
For the record, I own all JM's albums and I have uploaded more reviews. I give **** max, to my very fav tracks, * to songs I feel are still worth listening to.