Monday, July 28, 2008

Growing Up with Joe and John: Part II

So as I pointed out in Part I, I grew up (for part of my life) with Joe Jackson--that is, I bought album after album as they came out at different moments in my high school and college years (they went on for a while), but now I seem to have lost a bit of my enthusiasm for JJ. It is as if my attachment to his music seems to have been completely bound by the time that I was experiencing and loving his music. And I wonder about whether or not that has to do with the fact that while his music has shifted some over time, it has always been a kind of art school, cultural criticism of a sort rather than developing with him/me through time.

This question really came to me, not just because of JJ's new release, but because I got it at the same time as I got John Mellencamp's new disc: Life, Death, Love and Freedom. Here is the deal. Unlike JJ, I have not owned many Mellencamp albums, but the ones I do own seem to match my attitude and place in life. Let's look at my bookend albums as examples.

The first album I owned, was the silly-covered 1983 release Uh-Huh which, of course, included the smash hit, "Pink Houses" as well as "The Authority Song." But it was "Play Guitar" on the B-side that I was attracted to as a just graduated from high-school, guitar-playing wanna be singer-songwriter (I also loved how it followed "Jackie-O"). What 18-year old (insecure skinny white guy) wouldn't be attracted to lyrics like these (with some rockin' guitar of course)?

All women around the world want a phony rock star
Who plays guitar
You can pump your iron and shine your shoes
And wear your hair just right
You go down out on cruisin' street
'Cause you want to score tonight
Ra da ra da ra da
And you really want to show your scars
Forget all about that macho shit
And learn how to play guitar

Fast forward 25 years (yes, people, 25 years!) and we find Mellencamp releasing this T-Bone Burnett produced reflection on life that sounds more like John Prine than Johnny Cougar. The album opens with this uplifting verse:

It seems like once upon a time ago
I was where I was supposed to be
My vision was true and my heart was too
There was no end to what I could dream
I walked like a hero into the setting sun
Everyone called out my name
Death to me was just a mystery
I was too busy raisin up Cain

Now I am not saying that I am currently obsessing about death or having some mid-life angst (been there done that), but Cougar's reflection on life on this album does speak to me--in ways I suspect it would not have so many years ago--but in that same way that Uh-huh did when I was 18. It makes me want to go back and buy random Mellencamp albums and see if they reflect my attitudes at those times, but I doubt that would work. Still, it is interesting to me that Mellencamp's music has developed pretty much over the time that I was a serious music-listener. There aren't many artists that hang on that long in any relevant way and fit so neatly into this period of my life. So I am pretty sure I will be revisiting and exploring a few more of his offerings that I don't have--and recommendations are welcome.

As for the most recent album, if you have got the implication in this post, it gets a hardy thumbs-up from me, but you need to be in a mood to listen. It is dark (I think Rolling Stone referred to it as "American Gothic"). Mellencamp considers death from many an angle, laments the lack of freedom in this country as much as celebrates it, and, as usual, paints important landscapes of his America. I think there is always a temptation to think of Mellencamp's songs as simplistic (made for Republican presidential campaigns and Chevy commercials), but I am going to bet that many will go down as important reflections on our culture and country. And finally, while I am starting to wonder if T Bone Burnett is working to get his picture in the dictionary next to the word "ubiquitous," the music and production on this album are wonderful and set a perfect context for the lyrics.

Here is a slightly more upbeat live version of "If I Die Sudden."

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