Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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John Cougar Mellencamp

  • Uh-Huh [Riva, 1983] B
  • Scarecrow [Riva, 1985] B+
  • The Lonesome Jubilee [Mercury, 1987] A-
  • Big Daddy [Mercury, 1989] B-
  • Human Wheels [Mercury, 1993] Dud

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Uh-Huh [Riva, 1983]
The changed billing indicates John's eagerness to talk straight after years of filtering himself through an inconclusive image, and I wish every AOR hero put his triple platinum to such honest use. Only thing is, the depth of John's populist intentions far outstrips the depth of his populist perceptions--he was just as interesting telling little white lies. B

Scarecrow [Riva, 1985]
Having long wondered what gave this longtime Bowie stablemate the right to speak for the average guy, I've decided it's his talent, which is pretty damn average. That's okay, because the success ratio here, a nice average fifty-fifty or so, just goes to show you what sincerity, hard work, and modest ambitions can do. Mellencamp has half outgrown the fatalism that always underlined the predictability of his Stonesish bandmates, who've gotten tougher with age, an encouraging sign in rich musicians. I wish I knew (I wish he knew) exactly what "Justice and Independence '85" is trying to say. But I'll take "You've Got to Stand for Something" at face value. B+

The Lonesome Jubilee [Mercury, 1987]
In which Mellencamp's confused conscience and self-serving defeatism become so single-minded they take on the force of truth. His protagonists don't expect all that much and get less, but they're not beautiful losers--they're too ordinary, too miserable. Riding a spare, tough groove I don't hear Scarecrow matching, they convince you (but not themselves) that they're the heroes America deserves. A-

Big Daddy [Mercury, 1989]
He's miserable because his half-earned success gets him more love than his hard-fought principles, because he still isn't sure what justice is, because his bones creak, because he's an American fool. He wrote the 11 originals sans band for a Woody Guthrie feel, as if structure were the secret, and as rendered by said band they sound so loose-limbed that at first you may blame yourself for not loving the shit out of them. But every one bogs down in his bitter pretensions, as Mellencamp must suspect. Why else would he sneak in the devastating unannounced cover (nonvinyl-only, principle fans) of the 1967 one-shot "Let It All Hang Out," where four loose-limbed fools who never heard of Woody Guthrie achieved the feel he's striving for without even trying--in hopes of becoming pop singers, yet. The loss of grace it signifies could make anybody miserable. B-

Human Wheels [Mercury, 1993] Dud