Even when John Mellencamp first hit the scene as Johnny Cougar in the late '70s, he immediately had to labor in the shadow of Bruce Springsteen. He also had the misfortune of evolving from a rebellious rocker into a contemplative middle-age singer-songwriter on the same schedule that Springsteen's career took its arc. Nonetheless, he created a body of work and released a string of heartland rock albums in the '80s that stands among the decade's richest and most versatile musical artistry. Here's a chronological look at 10 of Mellencamp's finest compositions from this period.
On this, his first great tune of the decade, Mellencamp employed a tool that would become familiar in his later work: a gentle, melodic guitar line that works beautifully in combination with the yearning in his lyrics. Comparisons to Bruce Springsteen would hound Mellencamp throughout his career, but on this song from 1980's rebelliously titled Nothin' Matters and What If It Did, the uniquely vulnerable, questioning romantic within the artist is particularly apparent. It's a memorable start but ultimately only a stepping stone to his best work still to come. Still, a No. 17 showing on the Billboard pop charts in the early part of 1981 has left the song's reputation unduly muted, which makes it an even more rewarding listen now.
Mellencamp had flirted with hard rock prior to this monster hit from his breakthrough 1982 album American Fool, but he had never done so with the verve and melodic sense found here. He had also displayed a bawdy side before, but he had previously failed to grasp subtlety in that regard (check out "Tonight" from the earlier Nothin' Matters and What If It Did for proof). Heavily played though it is, "Hurts So Good" works very well from its Stonesy riff all the way down to its nifty bridge. The song's music video, of course, is another matter entirely, but if you're into fishnets, bartop dancing and grimy-looking, early-'80s cinematography, then by all means knock yourself out.
With this song, Mellencamp began his transition from rebel rocker to contemplative, serious and meaningful songwriter. Or at least that was probably his intention, especially as he moved closer to shedding his stage name with every track on 1983's popular Uh-Huh release. This is one of the singer's finest songs, a moving reflection on the joys and pitfalls of the American Dream, all delivered in a somewhat middle-of-the-road Midwestern style. Like Springsteen, Mellencamp's persistent melancholy probably had a way of surprising a lot of people who naturally assumed his music was blindly and unthinkingly patriotic.
Mellencamp waited until 1985 to release his most impassioned rocker yet, delivering not only a rousing performance of solid pop/rock but also tackling a personal political issue directly. The plight of the American family farmer has remained a major concern for the singer for the past two decades, but this particular slice of anger truly unleashes Mellencamp's righteous indignation. Pure emotion is not always enough to save him lyrically, but the former John Cougar clearly continued his maturation process here. And let's face it, the lyrical homage to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke doesn't hurt: "Callin' it your job, old Hoss, sure don't make it right/If you want me to I'll say a prayer for your soul tonight."
Although Mellencamp entered his most consistent phase during the mid-'80s, he still couldn't seem to shake the comparisons to Springsteen. In fact, the parallels may have even grown stronger on Scarecrow. On this fine heartland rock version of a mid-tempo ballad, the singer actually falls closer to Kenny Rogers than anyone else, at least in terms of his lyrical concept. Mellencamp's tale of a bus rider and the old man who bestows wisdom has a close relative in Rogers' "The Gambler," and that's no slight to either song. As down-to-earth musical narratives go - and with apologies to Old Milwaukee beer - it just doesn't get any better than this.
Sorry, John, but this one just feels a bit too much like Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" Part II. That being said, it probably follows logically that it also stands as one of the great mainstream rock tunes of the decade. So I guess in many ways it's a pretty good problem to have, resembling one of rock's all-time most deserving legends. As for the song, the verses lay down a pretty decent groove and are supported ably by a solid pre-chorus and chorus. Once again, Mellencamp utilizes a moving, constantly evolving contrast between despair and hope, even if his prime mainstream pop/rock could sometimes be a bit too slick for its own good.
Growing older continued to have an expansive effect on Mellencamp as both a musician and lyricist, and on 1987's popular and acclaimed The Lonesome Jubilee, this maturation produced some of his most exploratory music yet. Aside from the introduction of violin and accordion accompaniment, the singer's growing band layers other stringed instruments atop world-weary portraits of Average Joes grappling, perhaps for the first time in their whirlwind modern lives, with mortality. The results aren't necessarily all that profound, but they're certainly genuine and hauntingly familiar.
10. "Jackie Brown"
At times on his last album of the '80s, 1989's Big Daddy, Mellencamp turned so stark that the music occasionally came out bitter. But this song, the stunning centerpiece of the album, simply stands as one of the singer's finest moments, especially when it comes to the economical and precise lyrics that deliver a stunning punch to America's good ol' boy gut. In many ways, Mellencamp's late-'80s career continued to eerily mirror Springsteen's, but it was really just coincidence that both turned to highly personal themes and embraced folk music instead of rock at pretty much the same time.