Review: John Mellencamp’s American Masterpiece

John Cougar Mellencamp/Scarecrow/UMe
4.5 Out of Five Stars

Videos by American Songwriter

Scarecrow was a significant step in John —then Cougar—Mellencamp’s early trajectory, one which helped establish his blue-collar identification and continued allegiance to his small-town roots. Keeping his Cougar handle—his nome plume during the initial phase of his career—suggested he was still struggling to make the transition from glam rocker to a sturdier stance, but the songs showed that he had in fact accomplished his mission. It boasted several significant anthems—“Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Lonely Ol’ Night,”  R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” and “Small Town,” chief among them—all of which built on the rural regimen initially established by “Jack and Diane,” “Pink Houses” and Authority Song,” underscoring his standing as a true heartland hero.

It was—and remains—an American masterpiece. Even those songs that didn’t grab immediate attention the first time around—the stirring “Minutes To Memories,” a series of steadfast statements of seemingly prophetic proportions (“The Face of the Nation,” “You’ve Got to Stand For Somethin’” and “Justice and Independence ’85” in particular)—helped enhance the revelry and rebellion echoed throughout the album overall.

Some 37 years on, Scarecrow remains as compelling as ever, perhaps even more so given today’s fracture of faith in the American dream. Consequently, this two-disc reissue is both timely and transformative, courtesy of a remastered sound, an entire disc containing outtakes, demos, and seminal versions of several of its songs, and a booklet that details the album’s backstory. The covers in particular—a fond take on “Under the Boardwalk” and a searing version of James Brown’s frenzied funk-fest “Cold Sweat”—help reveal his roots, but early takes of “Lonely Old Night,” “Rumbleseat” and “Small Town” (a complement to the previously released acoustic version tacked onto the end of previous reissues) provide early insight into Mellencamp’s creative process. Shorn of pretense or posturing, they reflect an artist who clearly had his sights set on championing the Everyman among us and making his own musical mark at the same time.

Like Springsteen, Seger, and Petty, Mellencamp came to represent authentic Americana and the true meaning of what R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. meant in essence and actuality. Even now, this Scarecrow makes an emphatic impression.

John Mellencamp Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns

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