Gloriously packaged within the kind of book that other artists could only dream of (and a lot of publishers would do well to echo), “On The Rural Route 7609” is the career anthology that Mellencamp’s fans have been demanding for years.
Eschewing straight chronology in favor of a more thematic approach, 54 tracks shift throughout his 35-year career with their eye not on the hits (although a lot of them are included), but with the sheer consistency of Mellencamp’s writing and performance.
It’s an approach that allows his songwriting demos to blend perfectly in with the finished, polished album material, while live cuts and alternate versions up the rarity quotient even higher. But, again, this isn’t a set for the collectors alone to drool over. All sepia photos and heavy-duty paper, the packaging looks like something you might find moldering away in a Midwestern junk store, and the music matches that mood — dark, thunderous blues that may occasionally glance toward whatever noises are in fashion elsewhere in the world at that time, but which never lose sight of their own heartland heritage. Anyone, after all, who can swing from Son House’s “Death Letter” to “Jack and Diane” obviously has a firmer grip on his musical inclinations than most musicians, and no matter how successful Mellencamp may have been over the years, you get the impression that he would have made precisely the same records if he’d been locked into the bar circuit forever.
It’s music to drive across the prairie, to stare out at the rain through a cracked window pane, to watching the wind whip through the scarecrows. Anyone who recalls the pounding “Rain On The Scarecrow” from the original Scarecrow album will be left speechless by the raw take of the same song that turns up here. Taken from 1999’s “Rough Harvest” (an album that even the fans forget!), it is reborn as a clutch of ragged scraps, all ominous percussion and haunting violin, and still echoing in your head as Cornel West begins reciting the lyric to “Jim Crow,” before Joan Baez steps up to duet with its writer through the familiar version.
Full-time Mellencamp fans will probably find fault in the songs that didn’t make the cut here, and hit hunters will doubtless wring their hands, too. But, again, “On The Rural Route 7609” is not a retrospective. It’s a lot more than that, and, if every box set was compiled with this much affection and attention, maybe the music industry wouldn’t be in recession. They used to say that you get what you pay for. “On The Rural Route 7609” gives you a lot more than that.