Music Review: John Mellencamp 1978 – 2012

5 STARS

imgresWhen you think of iconic American rock artists and iconic American rock songs, it’s hard to imagine turning on the radio and not hearing John Mellencamp singing songs like “Jack & Diane,” “I Need a Lover,” and “Pink Houses.”   On December 10, 2013, Mellencamp fans get the ultimate Christmas gift: John Mellencamp 1978 – 2012, a sprawling 19-disc, 223 song, career-spanning box set that includes John CougarNo Better Than This, and everything in between.

What I like about this box set is the fact that it is a truly comprehensive look at the career of one of America’s most beloved musical sons.  It has something for everyone.  If you want straight ahead rock and roll, Mellencamp’s early releases like John CougarNothin’ Matters And What If It DidAmerican Fool, and Uh-Huh will satisfy your itch.

With Scarecrow, Mellencamp’s musical sound and the content of his lyrics start to mature, a trend that continues with The Lonesome JubileeBig DaddyWhenever We WantedHuman WheelsDance NakedMr. Happy Go LuckyJohn Mellencamp, and Cuttin’ Heads.  Many of these songs fit well on adult contemporary radio.  This is perhaps my favorite period of Mellencamp’s music because it is, in my opinion, the most musically and lyrically diverse.

On Mellencamp’s most recent four albums, including Trouble No MoreFreedom’s RoadNo Better Than This, and Life, Death, Love and Freedom, Mellencamp takes a minimalistic approach to his music.  These four albums take us on a journey through roots music, and are a mixture of country, bluegrass, blues, and folk music.  They paint a beautiful, sometimes brutal picture of life in rural America.

The box set contains a couple of surprises.  Rough Harvest is a collection of acoustic versions of some of Mellencamp’s classics, including three of my favorites, “Human Wheels,” Rain on the Scarecrow,” and “Jackie Brown.”  It also contains a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina,” a song made famous by Joan Baez, a cover of “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters, and Van Morrison’s “Wild Night.”

The box set also includes the soundtrack to Falling From Grace, Mellencamp’s acting and directorial debut.  The movie was a flop, but the soundtrack is an album I find myself coming back to on a regular basis.  Aside from Mellencamp, the album has songs by the likes of Dwight Yoakam, John Prine, Nanci Griffith, Janis Ian, and Larry Rollins.  “Whiskey Burnin’” by Larry Crane, Mellencamp’s then-lead guitarist, is one of the album’s best songs, second only to “Sweet Suzanne,” a spirited collaboration between Mellencamp, Yoakam, Prine, Joe Ely, and James McMurtry.

My one complaint is that I would like to have seen the music presented in random order, not chronologically.  When listening, it would have been nice to experience different eras of Mellencamp’s career side-by-side.  This is a minor complaint though.  This box set staggering in its scope, and is a fitting tribute to one of America’s great musicians.  Thanks for 35 years of great music, John!  Can we get 35 more?

Note: The reviewer was provided with a digital copy of this box set in exchange for an impartial review.

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