Album review: John Mellencamp, Mr. Happy Go Lucky (1996)

 

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 12, 1996

By Steve Newton

In 1994, John Mellencamp was scheduled to perform here in support of his Dance Naked release, but the show was cancelled when the then–four-pack-a-day smoker suffered a heart attack.

He hasn’t toured since, and from the sound of this new CD, Mellencamp is now making music that’s more therapeutic to his troubled ticker. Out is the jarring, electric guitar–dominated style of his past few albums; in is a much more fluid and soothing approach to rock. He’s returned to the more rootsy and diverse flavourings of his mid-’80s period, and has mixed those in with the loops and grooves of dance club maestro and coproducer Junior Vasquez to create a sort of Lonesome Jubilee for the urban dance crowd.

You needn’t worry that Mellencamp has become the MC Hammer of the Heartland, though. Although the rough edges have certainly been filed down on his core band of guitarist Mike Wanchic, bassist Toby Myers, and drum god Kenny Aronoff, Mellencamp’s sharp-eared songcraft still thrives within this new, uncluttered musical canvas. He’s more funky and buoyant than ever before—especially on Myers’ bottom-driven “Emotional Love”, the first song he’s ever recorded by a bandmate—but he covers the new ground with a confident stride. And whether waxing whimsical on the poppy, boy-meets-girl ditty “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)” or pondering life’s magnificent tortures on the autobiographical “Full Catastrophe”, the former Johnny Cougar connects with the homespun, unassuming charm he’s noted for.

The two-minute violin overture by Miriam Sturm that opens Mr. Happy Go Lucky is a little overdramatic, and the segues of laughter, tuba playing, and chatting old people that pop up between various tracks get bothersome after a few listens. But these brief distractions fall way short of undermining Mellencamp’s creative detour down a smooth sidestreet of the rock highway, one that’s been paved by musical agility and openness.

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