Heartland Rock Hit-Maker John Mellencamp Isn’t Finished Hurling Stones

By Michael Spawn -

With a career spanning four decades, John Mellencamp is to the Midwest what Bruce Springsteen is to New Jersey: A record keeper for its places and people, their private struggles and quiet triumphs. A one-time leaseholder on the mainstream music charts, Mellencamp (who long ago dropped the Cougar) never seemed to care much for the trappings of pop-star fame. With calling-card tunes like “Small Town” and “Pink Houses,” his focus was and continues to be on the writing, going light on metaphor and heavy on specifics, revealing a songwriter who views the American Dream with a clear eye and little patience for ambiguity.

In fact, as he’s gotten older, impatience and dissatisfaction have become Mellencamp’s default positions, especially when it comes to the country’s political landscape. He’s always had beef with authority — 1989’s “Country Gentleman” takes stabs at Reagan; 1983’s “Authority Song” rails on the general concept. But since the last Bush presidency, Mellencamp hasn’t been content to express his disenchantment through song, and things didn’t improve much for him after Dubya left office. Though he performed at rallies for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primary season, he never officially endorsed either of them. As publicist Bob Merlis told The Associated Press, “Neither candidate is as liberal as he would prefer.”

He hasn’t made many outspoken political statements in recent years, but there’s still an anger simmering beneath his music. What was once an insistent bark has given way to a low, rumbling growl — quieter, but no less clear.

Released last September, Plain Spoken is Mellencamp’s 22nd studio album. Gone are the little ditties about American kids. At 63 years old, Johnny Cougs has moved on. There’s little on the album in the way of pop songwriting. Instead, Mellencamp hands down a record of 10 acoustic-driven songs that err on the side of traditional Americana. Fiddle, harmonica and accordion mark a work that, while never feeling incomplete or deliberately minimalist, nevertheless allows itself ample room to breathe. It’s as though, instead of the Belmont Mall Studio in Mellencamp’s Indiana home, the album was recorded outdoors among the endless horizons and open air of the Midwest. He’s always had a knack for turning his songwriting eye outward and capturing the spirit of everyday Americans through anecdotes and blunt observation, but — as with much of his middle-age output — Plain Spoken finds Mellencamp giving himself a severe once-over.

“I always felt like there was something better / Even when I had it made,” he admits on “The Isolation of Mister.” “Never respected the job I was doing / Never cared about money but I felt underpaid.” But he doesn’t only critique himself; his skill for political bone-picking and societal diagnosis remains sharp. On “Lawless Times,” a laundry list of curmudgeonly but thoughtful complaints, he tells us, “You can’t trust the priest / You’d better watch your behind/ Don’t look too close at the government / Hard tellin’ what you’ll find.” And then adds, in an acerbic aside, “If you want to steal this song / It can be easily loaded down.”

Mellencamp was 30 when “Jack and Diane” was first released, and given the song’s quintessential lyric — “Life goes on / Long after the thrill of livin’ is gone” — it could be argued that John Mellencamp is growing into the old soul he’s always had. In any case, his heart remains with the Midwest, with America — though he seems to see it a little differently than the rest of us.