The Good: Catchy tunes, Wonderful lyrics, Good sound
The Bad: SHORT!
The Basics: John Mellencamp's American Fool holds up as a worthwhile album, despite its brevity!
When it comes to classic albums from artists who had a distinctive career or singles with whom they are most associated, I have something very clear I am looking for when I listen to their well-known albums: I listen for the non-singles. So many classic rock albums that were bolstered by two or three singles have very little else on them worth listening to. In other words, the artist lucked out and sold some albums based on the power of singles that were either superior to or very different than whatever else was on the album. I chose John Mellencamp as my October Artist Of The Month because I wanted to see if his career was one that could actually be distilled down to a single "best of" album or if he had songs that were not released as singles. One of his albums with the most hit singles on it was the 1982 album American Fool, so this became a crucial album for me to formulate my opinion.
And American Fool is more than just the three (or four, depending on where in the world one lived!) singles that became smash hits off the album. American Fool is the album that had the well-known John Mellencamp songs "Hurt So Good," "Jack And Diane," and "Hand To Hold On To," but there are other songs on the album that it is easy to listen to and find equal merit in.
With only nine songs clocking out at 34:26, the biggest strike against American Fool is its short duration. On c.d., American Fool could easily have been combined with another John Mellencamp album to offer listeners real value. American Fool is very much the musical vision of John Mellencamp. Mellencamp wrote five of the songs and co-wrote three of the others. Only "China Girl" was not written and composed by Mellencamp. Mellencamp is credited with lead vocals, but not any of the instruments on American Fool. He also was not a producer for the album.
American Fool is very much a guitar/bass/drums rock and roll album. In fact, the drums are incredibly important on the album, lending distinctive beats to "China Girl," "Hurt So Good," and "Close Enough." While the drums are pounding on almost every track and the accompaniment to John Mellencamp usually includes multiple guitars, the album is produced such that the instrumentals never overwhelm the vocals. The album may end with a contemplative ballad with "Weakest Moments" and be a little slower on "Thundering Hearts," but the rest of the album is pretty energetic rock and roll.
Vocally, John Mellencamp is entirely in his element on American Fool. He sings articulately, energetically and alternates with some slurring on other songs (he sings "I won't break you" on "China Girl" where it sounds like he's assuring her he won't rape her!). His voice has an occasionally raspy quality to it, but for the most part, he sings clearly and with a decent amount of vocal force (if not incredible range).
On American Fool John Mellencamp is a wonderful musical storyteller. There is a reason that "Jack And Diane" became a classic. When Mellencamp sings the story about how the two young people grew up together and "Suckin' on chili dogs outside the tastee freeze / Diane's sittin' on Jackie's lap / He's got his hand between her knees / Jackie say, hey, Diane / Let's run off behind a shady trees / Dribble off those Bobby Brooks / Let me do what I please" ("Jack And Diane"), he tells a pretty iconic musical story.
By this point, Mellencamp was achieving recognition and some measure of celebrity and he started to incorporate that into his music. With lines like "I may not be a pillar in my town / Or have the kind of job you think that I should. /I know you see me out running around with a couple of people / You think are no good. /I've tried to clean it up a couple of times, but I'm a / Backslidin' fool when it comes to walkin' that line" ("Close Enough"), Mellencamp starts to acknowledge that his life is no longer the typical American life.
While American Fool is well-known for "Hurt So Good," the album has another, much more powerful song about human relations. After a very danceable, energetic album, Mellencamp closes on "Weakest Moments." "Weakest Moments" sounds almost like wedding vows with its promises, that come after sadness: "You say you remember when it was your world / And you were Mister Ruby's girl. / He gave you dreams and schemes that swirl / Around your head and your body. / And when you drink sometimes, you try to liberate. / And you stagger in the front yard till you find the gate / That swing on that thin line of love and hate. / And baby, just let it go." ("Weakest Moments"). It is well-written, has a universal sentiment and is sung with such passion and longing that it is hard to hear it and not wonder, "how was this not a single?!"
Ultimately, American Fool does what listeners and fans of John Mellencamp would hope it would do: it is a solid album that is more than simply the three singles virtually everyone knows from it! The best track - not found on every Mellencamp compilation - is "Weakest Moments;" "Can You Take It" is probably the closest the album has to a weak link!
For other works by John Mellencamp, please check out my reviews of:
Chestnut Street Incident
Words And Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits
For a comprehensive list of the albums and singles I have reviewed, please check out my Music Review Index Pagefor an organized listing!
© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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