Sunday, October 25, 2015

Discontent Rocks On John Mellencamp's A Biography!

The Good: Decent vocals, A number of good lyrics, Overall sound
The Bad: Some cringeworthy lyrics (rhymes), Repetition
The Basics: A Biography is a surprisingly solid early album by John Mellencamp which oscillates between strong musical statements and predictable rhymes.

I will admit that when it comes to my music criticisms, early albums have a tendency to suffer under my pen. I found myself considering that as I listened (and re-listened and re-listened!) to John Mellencamp's early album A Biography. A Biography was Mellencamp's second album that he released under his early stage name Johnny Cougar and it got me thinking that this is what so many demo albums sound like. The album is not a demo, but given that it is Mellencamp's first entire album where he released songs he himself wrote, it acts in many ways like one.

As a result, A Biography showcases the many (early and innate) talents of John Mellencamp and while my first listen yielded a "the sound is so limited!" reaction, the more I listened to the album, the more that reaction softened. Yes, A Biography sounds a lot like John Mellencamp was composing through class and got stuck in his own head on some songs and then got together with some friends and knocked out the recording with a small garage band, but that doesn't make the album bad. In fact, it makes it all the more impressive that Mellencamp found an early audience and managed to get the time and industry support to develop.

With only ten songs, clocking out at 42:58, A Biography is a fairly short album that managed not to sound short, probably because of the relative strength of the lyrics on the songs. As well, Mellencamp manages to balance energetic rock songs and more melancholy ballads to arrange the album in a compelling way. A Biography very much represents the creative talents of John Mellencamp (regardless of what name he went by for the album's release). Mellencamp wrote and composed all ten songs and he provides all of the lead vocals on A Biography. Mellencamp also plays acoustic guitar on the album and did some of his own backing vocals. The only major creative control Mellencamp ceded was on production; the album was produced by John Punter.

A Biography is a John Mellencamp album that sounds like proper John Mellencamp. The album is guitar-heavy and what might surprise listeners who only really heard his radio hits is how heavy the guitars rock on some of the songs. Indeed, "Born Reckless" - if the vocals are removed - sounds more like a ZZ Top song than what one thinks of as a work by John Mellencamp! The drums are heavy on "Factory" and Mellencamp pulls off quiet and cerebral using subtle saxophones on "Taxi Dancer." The noticeable departure from the guitar-driven sound of the rest of the songs (outside the quieter "Taxi Dancer") is "I Need A Lover," which has pretty strong keyboards.

But what I mean by sounding like a "proper" John Mellencamp album is definitely in the vocals. All ten tracks sound exactly, as one might expect, like John Mellencamp. While some artist's voices evolve and change, A Biography makes the argument that by his second album, John Mellencamp had found his sound. He stays within a very familiar range, his voice sounds occasionally raspy, and the rest of the time is smooth and clear.

The clarity is no surprise given how Mellencamp wrote all of the songs on A Biography; he's an artist who has something to say and he is determined to make sure listeners understand what he is singing. On A Biography, John Mellencamp most frequently sings about social issues. In the heartland folk tradition, Mellencamp sings musical storysongs on songs like "Taxi Dancer." Mellencamp evolves the unfortunate character who ". . . started out, just to be a dancer / Gonna make her livin' dancin' / In the Broadway shows / So she hitchhiked cross the country /From Pasaroba to the Big Red Apple / Where your dreams are made / Your debts must be paid on time / Well she wasn't used to livin' in the city / So she took a job cleanin' up as a maid" ("Taxi Dancer"). The story might be more universal than we like to admit, but Mellencamp makes it easy with "Taxi Dancer" to empathize with everyone who has chased a failed dream.

While he sings about relationships on "I Need A Lover," John Mellencamp is far more sensitive to women on songs like "Taxi Dancer" than on "High C Cherrie." "High C Cerrie" is a musical storysong about a hooker and with that song, he creates a pretty despicable worldview (his musical protagonist is animalistic and a would-be rapist). After trying to get laid for a six-pack, the musical protagonist hounds the song's subject: "Hey baby, are you with escort / Are you really on your way home / (Cherrie) Would you make it with a poor schoolboy / Would you let this dog throw you his bone / I don't mean to be pushy / But I know I'd shove you down on the ground (hell ya) / How can a sane man / Adjust to havin' you around" ("High C Cherrie"). Fortunately, that song is the exception to the rule on the album and Mellencamp makes it pretty clear the song's protagonist is worse than the hooker, which makes it interesting.

But not all of the songs are winning for the way Mellencamp wrote them. "Factory" is, as one might expect, a song about slaving away in the factory as a youth. Work songs are a pretty compelling genre, especially for expressing discontent with the status quo. Mellencamp gets in his social commentary when he sings "I'm diggin' real hard for some money to spend / Well it ain't that bad if the summer's free / I got my evenings ... to cruise the scene oh yeah," but he almost completely guts the punch of such lines with the obvious, cringeworthy, rhymes "Working at the factory / Gonna get me some of them luxuries / Well now me and the boys / Machines are making noise" ("Factory").

Despite some mediocre lines and the way the opening song just keeps going, A Biography is eminently listenable and well worth picking up even now. The best track is "Let Them Run Your Lives," the low point is "Alley Of Angels."

For reviews by other, former, Artist Of The Month artists, please check out my reviews of:
The King Of Rock: The Complete 50's Masters - Elvis
Rumours (2-disc version) - Fleetwood Mac
Cold Spring Harbor - Billy Joel


See how this album stacks up against others I've reviewed by checking out my Music Review Index Page where reviews are organized from best to worst work!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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