Bloomington Herald Times: Mellencamp’s New 4-CD Collection Offers Something For Old Fans And New

By Mike Leonard

It’s a rare thing in the music world for an artist to release a four CD career retrospective that could be called ambitious.

All too often, retrospective means rehash.

But John Mellencamp worked assiduously to avoid that with “On the Rural Route 7609,” which is set for release Tuesday and covers territory from the beginning of his recording career in 1976 to the most recent tracks from 2009.

“I was really struck by how fresh all of this stuff sounded,” writer Anthony DeCurtis said in a phone interview last week. “I really do think it puts a new frame around what John has done over more than 30 years of making records.

“He’s found a voice over his last few records, and he’s gone back and I think traced that voice through all of his earlier work,” he went on. “So the stuff is familiar. It’s not like you hear it and say it doesn’t sound like him. But it really is a different angle and a different take on what his music has been and what his perspective is. I found it very powerful to listen to and to speak to him about it all.”

DeCurtis once worked for this newspaper and earned his Ph.D in American literature from Indiana University. He’s written hundreds of articles on music and popular culture, published several books and served as a senior editor at Rolling Stone magazine. DeCurtis wrote both an expansive essay on Mellencamp’s music and career in the handsome, heavy-stock, 72-page book that contains the four CDs and lists between $80 and $100, depending on which website you search. Dozens of photographs from Mellencamp’s career, and a comprehensive track-by-track annotation also is included in the package.

While the 54 tracks on the album span more than 30 years of music, they do sound like Mellencamp sounds now, with a heavier folk and blues orientation than the Seymour native and longtime Bloomington resident used in crafting his rock and pop hits. Seventeen tracks are early “demo” takes or alternative versions of songs that appeared on albums. A lot of hits that normally would appear on an anthology such as this are not on this collection.

But it’s not like the electric rock edges aren’t in there.

“Rain on the Scarecrow” keeps its original intensity without the biting guitar. “Love and Happiness” still blazes. And “Pink Houses” is the same cheerfully dark anthem that celebrates the American Dream with the nudge and wink that asks if little pink houses are the best we can do.

On the other side of the equation, the big and back-seat cushy “Cherry Bomb” is delivered here in Mellencamp’s songwriting demo form, with Mellencamp playing autoharp because his guitar was out of tune when he had the inspiration to put the song down on tape. “Deep Blue Heart” pares down the original version with Trisha Yearwood on “Cuttin’ Heads” and maintains a stark beauty. And “Our Country” gets back at the Woody Guthrie celebration of American values it was meant to be and casts off the chest-thumping attitude that inspired Chevrolet to embrace it as a marketing tool.

There are plenty of surprises to be found “On the Rural Route 7609.” Princeton professor Cornel West speaks with a righteous African-American tone in a recitation of the lyrics to “Jim Crow.” And actress Joanne Woodward wows with her dramatic reading of the lyrics to “The Real Life,” an ebullient Mellencamp song she turns into a mature woman’s earnest plea for deliverance from stultifying sameness: “I want to live the real life. I want to live life to the bone,” she pleads with a storyteller’s ear for nuance.

And then there’s the trilogy of songs that gives listeners a fascinating insight into the evolution of one of Mellencamp’s most beloved songs, “Jack and Diane.” At some point in time, long after “Jack and Diane” had become a hit, Mellencamp found a tape recording of a song he had started, “Jenny at 16” and realized that he’d borrowed a significant amount from that unfinished song when he wrote “Jack and Diane.” Disc One of the four-disc set includes the initial song, Mellencamp’s writing demo of “Jack and Diane” and then the full-blown commercial version from the album, “American Fool.”

Mellencamp approached the project with the same mindset that has kept his career fresh and always forward-looking. “Listening to this, I don’t think you ever know what’s coming next,” said DeCurtis. “The four discs all stand on their own and they’re not organized according to any particular theme. The connections are more emotional and poetic.

“He put each disc together with the kind of feel and flow he uses to sequence a concert,” he said. “The sequencing was a very big issue with him on this collection. It went through a number of permutations. He had very strong feelings about what this was supposed to feel like.”

“On the Rural Route 7609” is a career retrospective that sounds very much like a new body of work. It’s a rare and satisfying achievement that burnishes Mellencamp’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame status.