Thursday, December 17, 2015

Early Indistinct: John Cougar Didn't Give John Mellencamp A Fair Shot!

The Good: One or two decent tracks
The Bad: Short, Repetitive, Instrumentally unremarkable, Frequently overproduced, Vocally unimaginative
The Basics: John Cougar is an early album misstep for John Mellencamp, which - predictably - failed to truly launch his career.

Every now and then when I make an artist with an extensive musical collection my Artist Of The Month, I find myself intrigued by trying to figure out how or why their career went the way it did. So, for example, John Mellencamp has been an accomplished singer-songwriter for just shy of forty years . . . how did it take him so long to break out and get heard by the population in general? After all, it is hard to argue that his first several albums did virtually nothing on the charts, yet somehow he managed to hang on to become a household name and become one of the most influential singer-songwriters of the 1980s and then an impressive enough performer to keep a pretty vibrant career through most of the 1990s. After listening a lot to John Cougar, I finally have my answer as to why John Mellencamp wasn't instantly recognized as a musical genius or one who could truly sell records and dominate the charts.

John Cougar is a pretty terrible album. Fortunately, much of the blame can easily be steered away from John Mellencamp. Mellencamp writes relevant and interesting lyrics for many of the songs on John Cougar, but the album has erratic production and the instrumental accompaniment is all over the place, which results in an album that oscillates between being a mess and being forgettable. And when it is neither of those things, it is sadly repetitive.

With eleven tracks (on the 2005 re-issue), clocking out at 43:20, John Cougar is short, but pretty clearly the work of a young John Mellencamp. Mellencamp wrote ten of the eleven tracks and co-wrote "Pray For Me." Mellencamp provides all of the lead vocals on John Cougar, as well as playing primary guitars. Mellencamp is not credited with producing on John Cougar, which makes some sense given that he was a pretty young artist at the time.

Musically, John Cougar is all over the map. While most of the songs sound like incredibly average rock songs being played by a minimal garage band, the album opens with a pretty dippy pop-rock opening for "A Little Night Dancin'." There is a painfully incongruent keyboard (which sounds a lot like a sax, but there is none credited on the album) on "Do You Think That's Fair." Both "Miami" and "Sugar Marie" are overproduced. Even "I Need A Lover" has an extended musical intro that seems like either pointless grandstanding (though I bet it would be great live as a way to bring in the whole band and then erupt with Mellencamp) or vamping for time because, as much as I like the song, it does not have all that many lyrics/is very repetitive with the lines it does have. In fact, only the stripped down version of "Taxi Dancer" seems to get the balance of music and vocals perfectly right.

Vocally, John Cougar does not challenge John Mellencamp at all. The songs feature his occasionally raspy, usually clear voice. It works, save when his lines don't; there are a few moments where he tries to shove too many syllables into a verse and, because he sings so clearly, it is noticeable in a troubling way.

Lyrically, John Cougar is all over the map. Mellencamp writes musical storysongs for works like "Taxi Dancer" and "Welcome To Chinatown," but the latter is hardly one of his most coherent or compelling musical stories he has told. In addition to being painfully repetitive with the refrain, Mellencamp sings about "Well I ain't that choosy / I'll flip-flop with a floozy / If I figure there's no strings attached / But sometimes I loose my feet / Underneath the back seat / And I have to fly my heart at half mast" ("Welcome To Chinatown"), which lacks the usual thematic depth Mellencamp brings to his songs.

John Cougar is not lacking entirely in social commentary, though. On "The Great Midwest," Mellencamp does his usual job of poking through the veil to illustrate some sense of reality behind the ideology of America. With lines like "... they call this the Great Midwest / Where the cornfields row and flow / They're all 5 years ahead of their time / Or 25 behind, I just don't know / All the young men talk about their 4 wheel drives / And how much money they're gonna make on Friday night / And, they like to brag about how they mistreat their girlfriends / Hey, let's get drunk, party it up, start a fight" ("The Great Midwest"), Mellencamp does a decent job of exposing the reality of America.

Even so, John Cougar is fractured in that Mellencamp refuses to commit to being as smart as he actually is. When he sings "Well Shakespeare threw down his pencil, / Said I think I'm gonna start layin' brick / Too much of this Romeo stuff enough to make / Anybody sick / 'To be or not to be,' I mean what's that supposed to mean / I'm changin' my image tomorrow / Be a groupie, make the scene" ("Pray For Me"), it is hard not to be a bit disappointed by him playing ignorant, even in the form of a musical protagonist.

Ultimately, John Cougar is a comparatively underwhelming album that was an early misstep for John Mellencamp. For sure, he recovered from it fast, but listeners will understand why he wasn't a break-out artist from his first big studio album when they hear it! The best track is "Taxi Dancer," the low point is probably "Small Paradise."

For other works by John Mellencamp, please check out my reviews of:
Chestnut Street Incident
A Biograpghy
Nothin' Matters And What If It Did
American Fool
Words And Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits


For a full list of the albums and singles I have reviewed, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

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