Graded on a Curve:
John Mellencamp,
Uh-Huh

I’ve always liked John Mellencamp. Sure, I’ve been known to call him the poor man’s Bruce Springsteen, but I mean it as a compliment. I’m all for the poor man. Anyway, what I’ve always liked the most about the fellow who started out calling himself John Cougar is that he’s a curmudgeon. Mellencamp casts a gimlet eye at such things as Hope and the American Dream and smirks because he knows they fall short. He understands that our forefathers talked about the Pursuit of Happiness, but were wise enough to remain mum about the possibility of ever catching the slippery fucker. Mellencamp is no dreamer. He sees what he sees and he’s not happy about it.

Take “Jack and Diane.” You can call it hokum, a clichéd look at growing up horny in the heartland of America and all that, but its core message (“Oh yeah, life goes on/Long after the thrill of living is gone”) is as dark as anything dished out by the likes of Lou Reed or Bob Dylan. Mr. Mellencamp is most certainly not out to sell fairy tales.

On 1982’s Uh-Huh, Mellencamp cynically lets us know that we’ve all been sold a bill of goods that has landed us in cookie-cutter pink houses in the spiritually dead suburbs, that you can fight the law but will never win, that in the end you’ll trade in your dreams for a warmer place to sleep, and there ain’t no golden gates gonna swing open, not in this life. The last refers to “Golden Gates,” a truly beautiful and anthemic ode that almost contains a strain of hope, when Mellencamp sings, “Only promises I know to be true/Are promises made from the heart.”

But aside from “Golden Gates” and “Jackie O,” a love song and collaborative effort with John Prine that is sweet and slow and is driven by some wonderfully simple Holiday Inn lounge keyboards (or vibes, I’ll be damned if I can tell the difference), the LP is knock-down, stripped to the basics, gut-bucket rock’n’roll. And to make things even better, the songs never fail to boast catchy melodies. I see no reason to talk about “Pink Houses” or “Authority Song” or “Crumblin’ Down.” If you don’t know them you’ve been dead since 1981, and if you don’t like them shame on you. “Ain’t that America for you and me/Ain’t that America something to see?” sings Mellencamp, and he’s telling us that we’ve all been sold a bill of goods. And he sings, “Growing up leads to growing old and then to dying/And dying to me don’t sound like all that much fun.” The man makes Arthur Schopenhauer look like an optimist.

The LPs’ best numbers—and I don’t hear any losers—are driven by the amazing drumming of Kenny Aronoff and the excellent guitar work of Larry Crane. This is your basic garage rock with the fundamentals perfected and every song falling into unassailable lockstep. “Play Guitar” and “Serious Business” have all the muscle of “Crumblin’ Down,” and “Serious Business” features a cool chorus that goes, “This is serious business/Sex and violence and rock and roll.” “Warmer Place to Sleep” almost sounds like a Ronnie Wood-era Rolling Stones’ number, and features some Bible-themed lyrics alongside Crane’s wiry guitar. As for “Lovin’ Mother Fo Ya,” which was co-written by Mellencamp and Will Cary, it’s the only weak link on Uh-Huh, and it’s not that weak a link at that.

Mellencamp may be no Springsteen, but they share a dark vision of life. And I may even prefer Mellencamp, because Springsteen undermines his pessimism with celebratory live shows and songs that shore up hope. Mellencamp, not so much. Nobody is going to take one of Mellencamp’s odes to melancholy and attempt to use it in a political campaign. “Oh yeah, life goes on/Long after the thrill of living is gone” is nobody’s idea of inspiring and one of the most despairing lyrics ever put to record. And his “home of the free” lacerates. He’ll never be the masterful storyteller and mood setter that Springsteen is. But put them in the ring, and Mellencamp’s dark take about how life will let you down will trump Springsteen’s every time.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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