Along with American social commentary, John's latest album also ruminates on his brush with mortality. Photo / AP
American heartland rocker John Mellencamp is heading here for the first time in 30 years during what's shaping up as a late-career renaissance. He talks to Russell Baillie
John Mellencamp has been working on a change of job description.
This isn't about amending the moniker of his early years, the "Johnny Cougar" handle he went out under in the late 70s - that was his then-manager's idea.
Back then he was a twentysomething rock'n'roll freshman, and he carried the Cougar name until his early 80s commercial breakthrough before he forced the switch.
That's now ancient history to the guy who says he's some 23 albums down the road.
An earnest but engaging talker, he peppers this phone interview from his home (60 acres in the rolling hills of Bloomington Indiana) with a near-mantra: "I never look back."
No, that change of job title is a subtle but important one.
"I am trying to transition from this lifestyle that I have had - of being a rock star - trying to figure out how to turn that into being more of a songwriter," he says as the talk turns to the topic of his latest album Life Death Love and Freedom.
The stripped-down album produced by American-roots specialist T-Bone Burnett (who put the old-world spook into the Robert Plant-Alison Krauss set Raising Sand among others) sure is a long way from that Cougar kid singing pop-rock anthems like Hurt So Good.
LDL&F, and its predecessor, 2007's Freedom's Road - he claims he didn't realise he had two in a row with "freedom" in the title until too late - show Mellencamp, increasingly literate songwriter, taking on some big subjects.
There are songs about the American nightmare, like Mean and Troubled Land and Jena. That last one concerned the trial of six black teenagers charged with the 2006 assault on a white student during escalating racial tensions in the Louisiana town of Jena, which included nooses being hung from trees and the torching of a local high school.
"I think the album describes pretty accurately where America is at right now. I think it pretty much reflects the mood of the country.
"You take a song like Mean which is on the new record - it's written about a couple but actually it is written about this country. I posed it as a relationship but actually it is about the way we are perceived in the world, the way we perceive ourselves in the world. It's kind of a dark time in the United States right now."
And it might be seen that Mellencamp is in a dark frame of mind personally too. LDL&F sure swings towards its "Death" chapter.
There are songs on which the 56-year-old, who suffered a heart attack in 1994, is contemplating his own mortality - or celebrating making it this far - like Longest Days, Don't Need this Body and the funereal blues of If I Die Sudden.
"I think that even more than that I think just being alive for 56 years gives you a certain insight into life. A lot of people think this is a dark record but I couldn't have written this record without having been alive for 56 years and having some life experiences."
Likewise, for a man who claims he doesn't look back, his album sure sounds like it's sprung from a distant mythical musical past.
"We tried to make it sound authentic. A lot of old instruments were used. Old recording techniques of course, coupled with new recording techniques but we were very mindful of the record we were making. It wasn't an accident it turned out that way.
"This record is written in the American songbook tradition. If you look at songs that were written in the 40s and the 30s in America they were actually written to tell stories and so a lot of them were sad stories.
"When I started writing this record I noticed that everything is going that way so it kind of followed along with that fashion and I knew that I was going to make that kind of record."
It's hard to see the songs on this one cropping up where some of his older numbers have been heard recently - on the campaign trail on both sides of the American political divide.
Republican nominee John McCain had Mellencamp's Pink Houses and Our Country at his rallies, until it was pointed out that their composer was a pro-labour, Democrat-supporting liberal.
Mellencamp has played at rallies for John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Anthems Small Town and Our Country still go down a treat.
"I don't really know," Mellencamp told Newsweek, "except that they're not really pop songs. I'm trying to speak in some honest tone that maybe the people who pick their music understand."
Mellencamp says his political side - he, Neil Young and Willie Nelson instituted the annual Farm Aid benefit concerts for the rural needy in 1985 - comes from growing up when he did.
"I think it was from being a hippie in the 60s. I went to the first Mayday protest and did all that kind of crap. Was in Washington DC and protested the wars and did all that kind of stuff.
"A person's beliefs will stick with him. My beliefs of racial equality still exist, my beliefs that everybody deserves a living wage still exist. My beliefs that the backbone of the country comes from the rural areas and it's the larger cities that tend to change the direction of these smaller towns."
Mellencamp plays in Auckland a month after the US elections. He laughs when it's suggested the result may well affect his mood for the visit. Or have him stay longer.
"I certainly hope that this country decides to change direction, but I am fearful that we are in such a mess that there is no magic wand that will be waved."
"I was in New Zealand in 1979 and of course I threatened everybody in my life that if George W. Bush was elected to a second term we were moving to New Zealand and my wife was actually online and looking at property."
Mellencamp was meant to be here earlier this year to play the Mission Estate concert in Hawkes Bay, but he pulled out due to a clash with his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That award - and the reviews for his recent albums - are signs that this rock star, often in his early years dismissed as a backwoods, second division Bruce Springsteen, is finally getting some respect.
"Well that was always other people. I just do what I wanted to do and please myself and if people went along with it, great, if they didn't what can I do about it?
"When I started out as Johnny Cougar there was no way in the world I had any selection to do what I did except go the path that I did. I either had hit records or I was done.
"It wasn't like the New York crowd was going to suddenly embrace me, and I had to prove them wrong, which I eventually did."
"And you know 35 years later my favourite review from when I first started out was when a very credible rock critic said: `What a divine find he'll be in 1984'."
Twenty or so years out maybe, but the guy still has a point.
Who: John Mellencamp
Born: October 7, 1951 in Seymour, Indiana
Family: Five children from his three marriages including sons Hud and Speck from his current marriage to former model Elaine.
His songs you might know: Hurts So Good, Jack and Diane, Pink Houses, Crumblin' Down, Authority Song, Small Town, R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A, Cherry Bomb
New album: Life Death Love and Freedom, out now
Concert: Supported by Sheryl Crow, Mellencamp and band is at Vector Arena, Wednesday December 3
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