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antiMusic.com: On The Rural Route 7609 Review
06.11.2010 - AntiMusic.com has posted an extensive review of John's box set written by Anthony Kuzminski.

A great artist has more than a few first-rate songs and a handful of larger-than-life albums, but an ever developing body of work. In a day and age where the album format is becoming extraneous, maintaining and building a legacy is harder than ever. The media is splintered and if your music is far reaching you may be lucky to have a few writers who champion your career on a continual basis, but when the lights go out and radio programmers stop playing your songs, it's ultimately up to the artist to etch their own legacy. John Mellencamp has been among the best singer-songwriters the American landscape has ever produced, but his career at times seems to be overshadowed by some of his contemporaries and as a result he's never received the recognition he deserves despite a steady stream of distinguished albums and singles who have entrenched themselves in the DNA over multiple generations. The last few years have been revitalizing for Mellencamp. He appears to have found his muse and instead of chasing the tails of radio programmers, he has looked within and in 2008 created what may be possibly his greatest record, Life, Death, Love & Freedom. One shouldn't underestimate the weight of John Mellencamp's influence. He is a pseudo-Godfather to the alternative country movement and in truth, country radio today wouldn't be the same without records like The Lonesome Jubilee or Scarecrow. He may not be spoken of in the same breath as Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan but he should. For every radio hit he had, there were two other songs just as remarkable on the respective records. His recorded output from 1982 (American Fool) through 1994 (Dance Naked) stands as one of the most innovative, inspired and downright phenomenal streaks of records in the modern rock n' roll era. The eight albums spanning a dozen years are every bit as bracing as any of the aforementioned artists best streaks. Despite not ever receiving proper acclaim, his new box set On the Rural; Route 7609 puts his ever reaching scope and talent into widescreen view. It's a unique animal as it houses few hits, a smattering of outtakes, but largely consists of underrated album cuts sequenced in a way that highlights John Mellencamp, the songwriter, over the last three decades.

Now before we can tackle the immensity of this collection, we must address the gargantuan elephant in the room. Of the 54-tracks, less than a third of them have been unheard before this box and many of these newer recordings are works in progress featuring nothing more than Mellencamp, a guitar and tape recorder ("Cherry Bomb", "Jenny at 16", "Authority Song", "Peaceful World"). Box sets going back about fifteen years tended to be outtake collections because the casual fan normally wouldn't take the dive for a pricey set that houses already released material. The best ones tended to showcase unreleased material, notably Bob Dylan's wonderful multi-volume The Bootleg Series. Is the lack of unheard material a disappointment? Absolutely. There's no way to disguise the missed opportunities here especially considering many rare and hard to find b-sides were left off his 2005 remaster series presumably to be held for the long talked about box set. Even reading the press release, I gritted my teeth together as I own every Mellencamp record and was seeking something meatier to sink my teeth into. One can hope these unreleased cuts find a way to be released one day. However, many of the earliest box sets by the likes of Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Rod Stewart and Elton John were mostly extended anthologies of their work. On the Rural; Route 7609 is unique from the perspective in that I don't think anyone has ever assembled a collection this large of the deep cuts from their albums. The difference between mid-level artists and the truly illustrious ones is the profundity of their catalog. Is there more to the hits we all know and love? Does an artist spend all their time working on the two or three radio singles or do they believe that every song is integral to the album's scope? Rarely does an artist allow for their material breathe and forge bonds record-to-record. On the Rural Route 7609 helps pull Mellencamp's entire career into focus through interweaving themes and stories prevalent throughout Mellencamp's career. The weight of this work is heightened by writer Anthony DeCurtis' 4,500-word essay inside the 75-page hardbound book. Even if you own every song Mellencamp has ever recorded, this packaging of this set is what takes it to the next level. DeCurtis speaks with great awareness and insight into Mellencamp's storied career and the song-by-song liner notes are the equivalent of a DVD commentary track. In his notes, there are only two minor mistakes. Big Daddy was released in May of 1989, four months after Ronald Reagan had left office and Billboard editor Timothy White died in June 2002, eight months after Cuttin' Heads (including the track "Just Like You") had hit stores. Far too many writers hired for these projects can't comprehend where the artist is coming from but DeCurtis writes with wholehearted enthusiasm and serves Mellencamp right. It's one thing to take notice of a song and another to feel like you can get inside the mind of the songwriter, which is the road On the Rural Route 7609 takes us down; truly the road less taken.

Each one of the four discs has a distinguishing theme and narrative intertwined throughout it. In fact, each of the four discs could have culled single word one titles from Mellencamp's 2008 album, Life, Death, Love & Freedom. "Life" experiences encompass disc one while disc two embraces a more political and bleak tone presenting the listener with harsh realities ("Death"). Disc three embodies a sensation of longing and "Love" while the concluding disc finds the narrator embracing their "Freedom" and they seem content with their voyage up to this point infused with hopefulness. The flow, execution and theme of the set are a striking revelation into the craft of songwriting. "Longest Days" begins the journey and sets the mood. "Longest Days" was inspired by a phrase his grandmother used to say to him ("Life is short, even in its longest days"). The song takes a look back the desolation we all stumble upon in one way or another. Despite the frail opening, it is Mellencamp's most staunch lyric and quite possibly the greatest song he's ever written. Over the next fifty-three tracks you begin to realize that besides songs like "Hurts So Good", "Small Town" and "Paper In Fire" is a body of work worthy of thoughtful discussions and dissection. Eight of the songs from Life, Death, Love & Freedom make an appearance on this box bringing to light how rich, compelling and persuasive his current body of work is. Sitting with the box in my hand and hearing the stream of this work, it's evident this is more than a mere cash grab, but a impeccably thought-out box-set that connects Mellencamp's rich back catalog of non-hits and puts them into context. It's the ultimate mix-tape compilation for those unacquainted of these multifaceted cuts. Few have picked up a pen to write a book and put Mellencamp's legacy into perspective, so he has done it himself. For many who aren't Mellencampologists, On the Rural Route 7609 is a revelatory earthquake reawakening their awareness of an immeasurable talent often overlooked and underestimated.

I have often heralded many of the songs from this collection in the past. Even uneven records like his late 90's output have treasures on them and this box is a way of re-introducing these past cuts and in some cases, by sequencing them alongside other tracks makes them more compelling. "Rural Route", "Jim Crow" and "Forgiveness" all were lost on the 2007 release Freedom's Road but find a home here in between "Jackie Brown", "Deep Blue Heart" and three workings of "Jack & Diane". There is even a less triumphant alternate mix of "Our Country" which is less polished and is framed by dustbowl percussion which will allow those who tired of the song to discern it in an entirely new light. The poetry reading of the 1987 track "The Real Life" by Joanne Woodward spotlights the poetic resilience of Mellencamp's writing. When initially announced, this reading seemed like a waste of space on a box from an artist who has multiple albums worth of material but these readings amplify the themes of his work. "Ghost Towns Along The Highway", led by Miriam Sturm's elegiac violin throws you smack dab into a small town murder noir mystery. "Sugar Marie" and "To M.G. (Wherever She May Be)" is presented here in novel arrangements adorned only with an acoustic guitar and Mellencamp's reedy voice. Originally recorded for John Cougar and Nothin' Matters And What If It Did respectively, these new recordings shine a light on two songs I had long ago dismissed. It also helps emphasize that Mellencamp's winning streak didn't just begin with "Jack and Diane".

"Rain On The Scarecrow", "Love & Happiness" and "Between A Laugh and a Tear" make appearances from his 1999 release, Rough Harvest. These versions feature more gritty and acoustic led arrangements and fit in effortlessly with the tone of the box set. "Authority Song" makes an appearance as a writing demo which is still full of the same piss and vinegar aggression found on the track we all know and love. Tracks from 1989's Big Daddy have their moment in the sun as well ("Big Daddy of Them All", "Theo and Weird Henry" and an acoustic rendition of "Void In My Heart"). The garage rocker "L.U.V." and the evocative "Sweet Evening Breeze" make appearances from one of his richest creative peaks (1993-1994). "The World Don't Bother Me None", an unreleased track from a documentary back in 2004 finds Mellencamp embracing the spirit of Muddy Waters. There is also a new recording of "Colored Lights", a song Mellencamp wrote and produced for the Blasters back in 1985 which in itself is a hypnotic. The monster hits, with a few exceptions (notably "Pink Houses" and "Jack & Diane") are completely absent from On the Rural Route 7609. In many ways, this box-set acts as a companion piece to his wonderful 2004 collection Words & Music which housed every one of his Top-40 hits and a few other well known album cuts. If one were to discover John Mellencamp at this moment, Words & Music and On the Rural Route 7609 would be the starting points.

Showcasing Mellencamp at his most zealous are his attacks on the American political system ranging from presidential warfare ("Country Gentleman") to the current economic climate ("Troubled Land"). The scathing and biting "Rodeo Clown" which may be his most ferocious performance in over fifteen years. I encourage you to listen with an open mind. Initially hidden at the very end of Freedom's Road it's now here and not hiding from anyone or anything. Much has been made of Mellencamp's political stances in recent years and if people are offended by it then they should take a look back his whole body of work as the stances are all there. John Mellencamp isn't a mere artist attempting to tear down a person or political party, but encouraging people to think out of the box, form their own thoughts and maybe one of these listeners will be in a position of power one day where their influence can wield something great for the larger whole. Many say artists shouldn't get political but I'm not sure if I agree with that statement. Whether it comes from the left or right political discussions tend to be heated but when applied to the art world, it becomes a form of fiery expression usually bringing out their best. "Rodeo Clown" may be offensive to some, but for my money, it's the most fuel charged rocker he's committed to tape in well over a decade. The characters that occupy his best work are in situations beyond the ability to fix and encounter hardships they never could have comprehended. How do you fight back at a world that has cut your hands off? For John Mellencamp, he fights with his songs.

On the Rural Route 7609 brings the legacy of John Mellencamp's craft of songwriting to the forefront. The MTV and radio rockers while a blessing mildly distorted his multifaceted and profound talent for words. This is a concentrated collection of some of his finest work as a songwriter. It provides a lens to his craft and how his path is steeped in the great American tradition of songwriters as he doesn't just pay homage to Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie but expands on their template and makes it wholly his own. When the lights go out and the music fades these characters and stories haunt us with their desperation and longing for not just a better life, but one with a few less hardships. These stories cut to the bone in ways few other artists could pull off effectively and sincerely. John Mellencamp is one of the greatest American artists from the last century who has created more than mere radio hits, but one who has his fingers on the pulse of a nation. This isn't someone who hides inside East Coast mansions or hangs with movies stars nightly in Hollywood. By never leaving his home behind, he has always had a step up on most of his contemporaries by not just losing sight of the struggles of this country, but his own struggles as well. He may be a rock star but by not distancing himself from the world, not only do we see ourselves in him, but he can see himself in us as well as evidenced by "Longest Days" and "Don't Need This Body"; these songs speak true to not just our lives, but his as well.
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