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Mr. Lucky under the big top,
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This review is from: Mr Happy Go Lucky (Audio CD)
Soon after his heart attack, John Mellencamp released this very creative album. The artwork sets the tone: circus acts! Indeed, it’s quite a performance, it rocks but it is extremely varied and surprising in many ways. I feel, this is the first album in which Mellencamp steps away from that Americana rock that made him famous, to explore more modern and alternative ways of making his songs come alive. There are all sorts of influences here and even some weird interludes! A list of instrumentation might give you a clue as to how diverse it all is: dobro, mellotron, organ, mandolin, chamberlain, harmonica, loops, vibes, violin, slide guitar, tuba, trombone, saxophone, some programming by Moe Z. etc.
I find the album very well produced, I remember being surprised at first, but it did not sound fake. I really like over half of the 12 songs, in fact 2 of them are amongst my favourite Mellencamp tracks of all time.
I still often listen to ‘This May Not Be the End of the World’ ***(*) it’s like some good seventies rhythm’n’blues by the Stones or Clapton, but slowed down with a modern beat; great to clap and dance to; husky vocals with happy sweet backing adding some depth by contrast. It has been co-written with George Green and so has ‘Circling Around the Moon’ *** on which the Stones influence is even more evident, with an addictive riff; however, we also get a bit of an Asian sound in the strings arrangement and the unusual structure of the song keeps us listening: it slows down and takes up again several times, while the tone of the vocals varies too, from unsure to clearer and back again. I’m not quite certain about the meaning behind the words on this album, but it hasn’t taken anything away for me: I quote JM, “The heart devours what it cannot understand.”
‘Life is Hard’ **(*) has grown on me. It’s quite a mix, with some sudden changes of direction: a hip-hop type of beat, some violin parts, electric guitars and monkey business. JM’s perfectly controlled voice is at the forefront and manages to be husky, firm and tender all at the same time. ‘Mr. Bellows’ ** has a bit of a western movie atmosphere at first, with a tribal style of drumming, joined by loud guitar solos and rising voices in the background. ‘The Full Catastrophe’ ** is good and has great potential, which I believe is in the storytelling, therefore it benefits greatly from being stripped down on the album Rough Harvest. The first version here is too loud, with repetitive drumming, loud echoing guitar, violins and backing vocals. ‘Large World Turning’ ** is a mid-tempo rock with echoing blues guitars; in the quieter part it reminds me of some Mellencamp from the eighties. ‘Jerry’ ** is a tale recounted on an energetic background of guitars: rhythmical strumming and echoing electric sound. It would have made a great opener, but Miriam Sturm’s violin arrangement has been used as the ‘Overture’. I would have preferred it as a closing number, since it is a medley of the album’s songs.
‘Emotional Love’ *(*) has been written by Toby Myers, the bass guitarist in the band. It’s (country) pop, on a soft but quickened beat. It’s different and interesting, there’s something definitely fun in this track and it keeps you guessing as to where it’s going to take you. ‘Jackamo Road’ couldn’t be more different: it’s a very short folk song arranged in a very traditional fashion.
‘Just Another Day’ *(*) was a single and though it is pleasant to listen to, it is very much what we know Mellencamp can easily do: strum and sing about some guys watching girls on the street: just another rock tune. The other single was ‘Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)’ * co-written with G. Green. Though it was worth listening again, I never got into it: too much percussion and trendy production, making me miss out on the touching aspect of the words. I very much like the simplified version of Rough Harvest (1999).
I strongly feel that the choice of single releases in Mellencamp’s career has often been bad, especially since the mid-nineties, and if the radio listeners got a chance to hear JM’s more original work, they would appreciate that he does not repeat himself as much as is thought. What’s more, he does more than write political songs or social commentaries all the time: his love songs are excellent, as he is very witty and perceptive.
For me, this album goes hand in hand with JM’s 1998 self-titled album (which I love even more) because of the exploration of many musical influences. There’s a bit for every taste and varying moods, therefore I must recommend it to anyone, not just shoppers interested in John Mellencamp’s music. It’s a hybrid, like his family, he has 5 kids from 3 marriages and on this album, there are photos of some of his children on the inlay (Hud and his half-sister Justice on the front cover, Speck inside). BTW, apparently the Christ and Devil pictures were edited out for some editions of this CD (American censorship at work)!
For the record, I own all JM’s albums. I have uploaded more reviews. I give **** max. to tracks I love, * to songs I feel are still worth listening to.