“American Dream” (Chestnut Street Incident, 1976)
John Mellencamp’s debut, credited to his early punk nickname Johnny Cougar, was so hyped that there was no way it could possibly live up to expectations. Interspersed between some odd cover choices (Orbison and Elvis I get, but the Lovin’ Spoonful and The Stooges?) are his early stabs at songwriting, the best of which is the swaggering opener. Defined by his cocksure vocals and concrete details, “American Dream” introduces a young artist already staking his claim to small-town life as an inexhaustible subject.
“Rumbleseat” (Scarecrow, 1985)
One of the best and catchiest songs on Mellencamp’s best and catchiest album was never officially released as a single. Overshadowed by massive hits like “Lonely Ol’ Night” and “Rain On The Scarecrow,” “Rumbleseat” is a hopeful account of life lived far away from any city, as Mellencamp turns the fold-out backseat common to so many hot rods and jalopies into a metaphor about class and freedom. “I’ll be riding high with my feet kicked up in that rumbleseat,” he exclaims. The song is a fine showcase for Mellencamp’s crack band — in particular, superdrummer Kenny Aronoff and Toby Myers, who make the song swing.
“Deep Blue Heart” (Cuttin’ Heads, 2001)
A testament to Mellencamp’s musical range, his 17th album features cameos by Chuck D, India.Arie, and Trisha Yearwood. The country star harmonizes bittersweetly on “Deep Blue Heart,” a gentle ode to a long-lost love that calls to mind the emotionally harrowing duets between Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. “I have a deep hope left, and I guess that’s someplace to start,” they sing together, like two lovers who don’t realize the heartache is mutual.
“Ghost Towns Along The Highway” (Freedom’s Road, 2007)
During his long career, Mellencamp has watched small-town America flourish and flounder and finally fall apart altogether. This late-2000s highlight plays as a possible sequel to nearly every song he had written previously and certainly echoes the real-life crisis in rural America, where the Tastee Freez has closed down and every Jack and every Diane has left town for bigger dreams far away. Remarkably, Mellencamp doesn’t sound especially bitter about this development: “But our love keeps on moving, and the wind keeps blowin’ us around …”
“Love At First Sight” (No Better Than This, 2010)
Just that crackling voice and his guitar are all Mellencamp needs to convey the playful possibilities of this little ditty. Each line begins with the phrase, “Let’s suppose …” which allows him to follow a hypothetical romance to its illogical conclusion. “Let’s suppose we went too far, in the backseat of your car,” he daydreams, and before long he’s thinking direr thoughts: “Let’s suppose you found another man and hit me in the head with a frying pan.” What might be repetitive and grating from another songwriter instead becomes gently devastating as Mellencamp’s raw vocals infuse the song with self-deprecating humor and a tender optimism that a long and loving relationship might be worth the cookware to the cranium.