Review Summary: The beginning of Mellencamp's long crawl to respectability
John (sometime Cougar) Mellencamp is a divisive, oft-mocked figure in the world of rock music, for both reasons both just and frivolous. His detractors, including a large portion of rock-critic intelligentsia tend to cite his commercially cynical back story, his obvious debts to greater talents (Springsteen, Dylan), his occasionally purple lyricism and his unvarnished, some would say cheesy, earnestness as evidence for lumping him into the back-end of AM radio fodder, a distinction which stuck for most of his career. Especially in recent years, however, as his writer's voice has matured with age and his musical backdrops have become more rustic and explicitly acknowledging of Americana folk-blues-country, Mellencamp has picked-up a large group of defenders who will cite his respect for songwriting tradition, his generally keen eye for small-town detail and his good-natured, everybody-work-together populism (Mellencamp is a key contributor to charitable organization FarmAid) as proof of the need for a critical reevaluation. Some of these defenders have gone back to Mellencamp's critically-scorned, but massively popular, earlier albums and, while finding numerous faults within their slicked-up, glossy production, have found that they are not nearly the cynical exercises in cornpone-peddling they were once dismissed as.
1985's Scarecrow is one of those earlier albums, though it can be seen as something of a dividing line in Mellencamp's career, and, as such, it highlights Mellencamp's faults and strengths in roughly equal measure. Coming off of 1983's massively successful but largely critically-panned Uh-Huh (which features the immortal “Pink Houses”), and 1981's American Fool, Scarecrow makes some gradualist changes to Mellencamp's general formula, introducing more folk elements (harmonica, pedal steel, more acoustic guitar) and a greater socio-political consciousness, while still not making a clean break with the up-tempo, fairly brainless rock-pop of the past. In a way, this sense of duality can be glimpsed from the album's cover: Mellencamp is still billed with the now-embarrassing “Cougar” epitaph (Scarecrow would be his last album where this was the case), but he leans, in black-and-white with a concerned look, on a fence-post, presumably in one of the innumerable small towns he proudly champions, a far cry from the garish, pin-up-esque cover of Uh-Huh. One must also remember the context in which Scarecrow was released, both musically and in the greater world; in 1985, Ronald Reagan had just been reelected with a landslide majority, and, as such, Americana was the word of the day, but equally important was the 1984 release of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA album, which proved, to the chagrin of some, that it was possible to weld heartland sentiment and eye-for-detail storytelling with shine-slick 80's production and synths.
While Scarecrow doesn't feature any synthesizer, it is almost-sickeningly free of grit,with the exception of the from-the-back-porch interlude “Grandma's Theme”, drums echo and boom throughout all the tracks, guitars electric and acoustic are blended so heavily that it becomes difficult to differentiate them, additional percussion and sounds such as organ and harmonica are woven far in the back. For those who have been introduced to Mellencamp through his recent albums, this may be a difficult release to get through, as, while a similar attitude can be found on Scarecrow, both the production and Mellencamp's largely grandstanding vocals are more emblematic of the time in which the album was created (remember that Mellencamp was competing for radio time with hair metal) than the vision of its creator, even discounting the confusing references to contemporary cinema in “You've Got to Stand for Something”.
Scarecrow's most well-known song remains its closer, “R-O-C-K in the USA”, a gloriously-stupid paean to the joys of, well, rock in the USA, and, while the song does posses a great shout-along hook and a certain charm, this is rather unfortunate as the heart of the album lies in its lesser-known, more complex material. The other generally remembered song from the album is “Small Town” (it's third single, “Lonely 'Ol Night”, is a fairly standard love song, though it benefits from a strong guitar line), which is more emblematic of the album's overall character. On the surface, it's a simple declaration of the pride of not being one of them city-folk, but in both snatches of its lyrics (“small town provides little opportunity”) and its semi-elegiac harmonica solo, the song reveals a more ambiguous character. This continues throughout most of the album, even though the most overtly political it gets is the tortured metaphor of “Justice & Independence '85”, which is redeemed by its shuffling beat, there is a certain sense of a world going wrong and the albums' working-class characters being helpless to stop it here, whether it's on “Face of the Nation” (“whatever happened to the Golden Rule”), or “Minutes to Memories”. However, this is tempered by the moments of optimism on the record, whether provided by music (“R-O-C-K in the USA”), love (“Lonely 'Ol Night”) or just having a good time (“Rumbleseat”), and the music is generally high-spirited, indebted in form if not overall sonic quality to early rock & roll.
Scarecrow's greatest track, somewhat disappointingly, though, is its first, “Rain on the Scarecrow”, a surprisingly dark tale of the kind of mass farm foreclosures that hit the middle of America hard during the 80's, complete with a hard-driving guitar line and Mellencamp's most nuanced vocal performance on the album. In its small details (grandma clutching a bible on the porch, ninety-seven crosses representing lost farmland, acres being auctioned off at cut-rate prices), the song makes a big implicit statement about the political and economic climate of the time, and speaks loudly to the later left-wing populism that would characterize both Mellencamp's music and his charitable work. On listening to Scarecrow, it's almost not impossible not to feel a sense of disappointment lurking in after the rest of the album can't match its opener's power, but, at the same time, the album does provide a useful time capsule and does represent the beginnings of Mellencamp's transition from something of a national joke to a more respected artist. 1987's The Lonesome Jubilee would amp-up the details, and the politics, but Scarecrow remains the point at which it became semi-legitimate to say “you know, that Mellencamp guy isn't bad”.