Housed in a book appointed with excellent photography, song by - song commentary, and a lengthy essay by Anthony DeCurits , the box plays like Mellencamp's answer to all of the criticism he's fielded since starting out as middling pop artist "Johnny Cougar" in 1976.
Chronicling change, delving into darkness, and pondering political consequence, it's a snapshot of an artist that embodies the Heartland's grounded aesthetic and a country that is no longer best saved or depicted by the sentimental nostalgia of "Jack and Diane' (represented here by a demo version, album version, and a rough-hewn pre-demo edition.) Mellencamp clearly loves his country and its people, the very reasons why he appears resolved to probe modern perceptions, principles, and priorities He spares no one, including himself, refraining from soapbox preaching yet sounding a alarm to rattle the public consciousness.
Mellencamp frames his character-rich studies and social observations in a rich assortment of Americana, blues, and folk steeping in country violins, acoustic guitars, accordions, and as the set's title implies, rural textures. Many songs echo Woody Guthrie's ghosts in sound and theme. At a time when the middle class seems to be getting lost in a flood of debt, insecurity, and lies, Mellencamp comes on like a voice of truth-not as savior but as an authentic, sincere narrator of struggles, concerns, defeats, and hopes. Yes, the voice is present on earlier rock-based fare such as "Pink Houses" and "Love and Happiness" (included here, as well as the surefire "What If I Came Knocking," from 1993's still-underrated Human Wheels). Heard in the context of this well-sequenced and well-packaged set, it's more relevant, confident and consistent than before.
It's not clear that Mellencamp ever arrives at definitive answers to his two
general questions. Still, in a least searching and embracing a stripped-down
sound that mirrors his down-home disposition, he's left an imprint that's much
greater than those still associating him with "Pop Singer" could ever imagine. A
bracing, riveting aural companion for modern times with a hardscrabble sound
that suggest anything but.