After spending the early part of his career making records for record company big wigs and struggling artistically under the made up image of Johnny Cougar and then John Cougar, John Mellencamp nonetheless enjoyed some success in his early going by way of a top forty hit and AOR smash from his first album, and two more even bigger successes in “Hurt’s So Good” and “Jack And Diane” from his third album, American Fool. Using his new found success to further himself as an artist and free himself even more from his record companies hold, he would take his last name back for his fourth album (becoming John Cougar Mellencamp), release the obliquely titled “Uh-Huh”, and would enjoy the biggest success of his career thus far with the cheeky, “right place at the right time in Reagan’s America” smash single “Pink Houses”. With more control over his career and music video at his disposal, Mellencamp was able to begin molding and shaping the artist and image he wanted to express and portray to himself and the public, and the Uh-Huh album saw him begin to do just that.
Using the muscle commercial success will gain an artist to begin making music that mattered to him, John went into the studio to follow up “Uh–Huh” and emerged with an album called “Scarecrow”. Unlike any album he had made in the past, this rebellious, often times difficult artist who’s early work was dismal at best and whose recent successes were still marked with uncertainty, managed to turn out an album of generous music and songs that drew strongly on Mellencamp’s Indiana farm country roots and mid western lifestyle. Showing a surprisingly keen eye for social, political, and personal matters that were not before present in his work, and a sharp songwriting and musical focus that saw him beef up his sound with loud ringing guitars and the big drums of Larry Crane, and Johnny Cougar had finally arrived.
Not content to sit on his newfound creative freedom and release “Scarecrow, Part #2” however, the ever ambitious and artistically blossoming Mellencamp once again used his success to his own stubborn advantage, strong arming his record company into allowing him to drop the bread and butter name of Cougar all together, and in 1987 with the now complete and overwhelming creative control only a critical and
commercial success like the Scarecrow album can bring an artist in his firm grasp, Mellencamp released perhaps the best album of his career even to this date in the pitch perfect and musically expansive “The Lonesome Jubilee”.
Flexing his muscle as a songwriter and expanding his sound and band to include Americana influences and instrumentation, the album kicks off with the cautionary tale “Paper And Fire”, which leaves the listener with no doubt to Mellencamp’s 180 degree musical turn. Although Scarecrow was a move forward creatively from his past, this song indicates a complete rebirth and rejuvenation. Alive with accordion, violin, dobro, banjo, soulful female back up singers and the requisite guitar, bass and drums, of course, and this track thunders and rolls down the tracks like a roots rock train flying right off of them. And it’s nervous story of a life given over to useless folly until it’s all blown away in ashes adds to the drama of the music in no small way. Kicking the musical diversity up even further for the next track, the stutter step zydeco flavored political rant “Down And Out In Paradise”, which finds Mellencamp giving voice to struggling Reaganomics era Americans from a working father who can’t feed his family to a school kid living in fear of the A-bomb to a stripper with a heart of gold, and Mellencamp wastes no time in showing the artistic growth and maturity that began on Scarecrow and had it’s seeds planted on the “Uh-Huh” album was no fluke. This was simply a train that had finally and fully arrived.
Stripping things down a bit for the next song, the beautiful and melancholy prayer for the future “Check It Out” and the album begins to relax into a smooth groove after the two rushed and anxious opening numbers. Check It Out, with it’s mournful violin and regretful matter of fact lyrics is simply songwriting at it’s best and one of Mellencamp’s better songs in his entire catalogue. A sad and sorrowful “state of our lives” song, Mellencamp opens “A million young poets / Screaming out there words / To a world full of people / Just living to be heard / Future generations riding on the highways that we built / I hope they have a better understanding” and later examines “Where does our time go / Got a brand new house in escrow / Sleeping with your back to your loved one / This is all that we’ve learned about happiness”, and this is as sharp and astute a social commentary as has ever been committed to record by any artist. Continuing with the mature and some would say even grown up themes for the next two tracks, Mellencamp busts out the accordion, pennywhistle, washboard and whiskey jug once again for the spirited “ain’t dead yet” starting life again rocker “The Real Life” and mid tempo nostalgia of the stand out cut “Cherry Bomb”. And in 1987 when albums came with two sides at least, we have the makings of one of the best sides of music produced by any popular artist over the last twenty years.
Continuing on this high to begin the second half of the recording we are treated next to the uplifting and guitar driven song of faith and hope “We Are The People” which reminds us maybe we never are alone even in our worst times if we have faith enough to believe we are not, and perhaps the hardest and most despairing track on the album in “Empty Hands”. Written by Mellencamp and sometime co-songwriter and novelist George Green, Empty Hands is a dark and desperate tale of people on the very edge of there lives who’s broken subjects understand “people sometimes get what they deserve / But lord sometimes it’s much worse then that”. A musically spare song that catches it’s breath to soar in the choruses, and with a final spat out cry of “Without hope, without love you got nothing but pain!”, this song never flinches in it’s study of the downtrodden and poor and the toll those things take over the course of years, and whether you apply it to Reagan era America or Depression era just the same, the timelessness of the music and the tale itself is enough to convey the message of compassion and hope underneath it all.
Rounding out the album with three good but not great cuts as the several that had come before, Mellencamp and crew slip into some comfortable clothes for the engaging, but pedestrian and unfocused “Hard Times For An Honest Man” and interesting Native American hitchhiker tale of the somewhat schmaltzy “Hot Dogs And Hamburgers”. These two songs, although worthy and musically and stylistically consistent with the rest of the album, simply fall short of the brilliance that had come before and after repeated listening, however entertaining, leaves the listener wishing for a bit more meat from the main course. For the last cut of the record, as if realizing the heavy handedness that had come before could use some fun, Mellencamp returns to the tried and true style and sound of his American Fool and Uh-Huh days to deliver up three minutes of good times and even better butt shaking in the bouncy pop rock of “Rooty Toot-Toot, and then it’s done.
To put The Lonesome Jubilee in proper perspective, one must consider the time it was released in and who released it. At a time when hair metal was the order of the day in rock n roll, alternative rock was just that, punk was all but dead in the mainstream for the next five years, and so far as American songwriters go Springsteen was turning personal, Dylan was turning weird, and Young was just a cat who thought he was American, John Mellencamp’s one-two punch of Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee would serve notice that another major player had now arrived who was more then capable of holding court musically, creatively, and artistically with the highest regarded performers and songwriters of his or any other time. A daring and unexpected blast of Americana brought to you by an artist that once put out an album titled “Nothing Matters And What If It Did”, creative and artistic independence didn’t come easy to the former Johnny Cougar turned John Cougar turned John Cougar Mellencamp turned John Mellencamp. But when it finally did, on this recording and on several more to come, he made it count for all it was worth. And in the process may just of happened to make music that really does matter. Whatever that old guy John Cougar might think.