John Cougar Mellencamp has come up with a knockout of an American rock album. If anything could dull the impact of "Scarecrow" (Riva 824 865-1), it's just that Mellencamp now seems sucked into the jet stream of success created by Bruce Springsteen and his multiplatinum "Born in the U.S.A."
Like Springsteen, Mellencamp shares a populist vision, a distrust of the fat cats and a genuine affection for working-class life and values. Like "Born in the U.S.A.," "Scarecrow" brandishes a classic hard-nosed rock sound forged from the staples of '60s radio. But there the comparisons should stop. What Mellencamp really seems to have learned from Springsteen is artistic persistence and the willingness to grow past whatever images and schemes one's record company fabricates on behalf of its artist.
When you listen to the conviction of Mellencamp's singing and his striking imagery on "Scarecrow," it's hard to believe that this is the same artist who, a decade ago, was dubbed Johnny Cougar by Tony De Fries, the same rock svengali who helped fabricate David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust persona. Cougar then was a hype-ridden joke whose knack for commercial song writing had elevated him to the status of a shallow but radio-worthy hack like today's Bryan Adams.
However, the popular success of such singles as 1982's "Hurts So Good" and "Jack and Diane" earned Cougar national attention and enough confidence to affix his real name, Mellencamp, to his smash 1984 album, "Uh Huh." And Mellencamp, a small-town boy from south Indiana who has grown from a phony rebel into a mature and serious rock artist without abandoning his heartland roots, is what "Scarecrow" is all about.
The soul of this record is found on the first two cuts, "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Small Town," both of which pridefully revolve around Mellencamp's midwestern heritage. With a clanging guitar and pounding drums ominously mounting like an impending summer storm, Mellencamp unfolds a terror-stricken tale of farm foreclosures in "Rain on the Scarecrow," a savage rocker with some of the most riveting lyrics of Mellencamp's career: "Scarecrow on a wooden cross/ Blackbird in the barn/ Four hundred empty acres that used to be my farm."
From this bitter tale of the farmer's plight, Mellencamp switches emotional gears with "Small Town," a loving rhapsody on small-town life. As joyously compulsive as the tune is, the lyrics might seem insincere coming from a major rock star, unless you know that Mellencamp still lives and records in Indiana with the same midwestern musicians who've formed his live band for years. There is a generosity and humor in lines like "Got nothin' against the big town/ Still hayseed enough to say/ Look who's in the big town" that contrast sharply with the self-conscious cynicism of Mellencamp's musical past.
There's no doubt that the John Cougar Mellencamp of "Scarecrow" is a more reflective and personal artist with new-found talents as a storyteller. In "Minutes to Memories" he sketches a convincing musical short story about the passing down of wisdom that sustains irony in the midst of a storming rock 'n' roll attack. Mellencamp is joined by Rickie Lee Jones on the bittersweet "Between a Laugh and a Tear," a song poignant enough to get Mellencamp's rough-and-tumble rock band to soften into almost gentle instrumental support.
If Mellencamp is about midwestern virtues, then his solid, no-frills band more than fills the bill. Led by Kenny Oronoff's cracking snare drum and Larry Crane's sinewy guitar figures, the band plays full-bodied guitar rock reminiscent of the Rolling Stones at their most economical. Even an overblown allegory like "Justice and Independence" is saved by Oronoff's explosive drumming, a squealing sax and the immediacy of the band's visceral attack.
Along with "Justice and Independence," there are a few other songs on "Scarecrow" where Mellencamp obviously stretches past his natural talents. However, even a simplistic anthem like "You've Got to Stand for Something" and a trite '60s tribute like "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." are endearing in their clumsy sincerity. If Mellencamp can't pull off his homage to his musical roots, it's really because, with "Scarecrow," he has reached that artistic place where the past seems inconsequential.