Back in 1989, when John Cougar Mellencamp released "Big Daddy," he announced that he wouldn't tour behind the album or engage in the usual range of rock industry promotions. In fact, he called "Big Daddy" his farewell to rock and roll; once that album ran its course, Mellencamp claimed, he would forsake making music and spend his time painting.
As it turns out, the only thing he really gave up was his "Cougar" nickname, as his new album, "Whenever We Wanted" (Mercury 314 510 151), is credited simply to John Mellencamp. Otherwise, he's working with essentially the same band, and writing essentially the same sort of songs. Even the time between albums hasn't changed -- there's been a new one every two years since "Uh Huh" in 1983.
So what did he gain from his alleged retirement (apart from an easy source of album art)? Simple: He got his edge back.
Mellencamp started out as a hard-core rock and roller, and has spent most of his recorded career seeming less interested in melodic subtlety than in brash statements and big noises. But as his stature in the rock community grew, the sound of his albums became increasingly diffuse, until "Big Daddy" found him flirting with such exotic influences as country blues and Cajun music.
Not this album, though. From the first, clangorous chords of "Love and Happiness," it's clear that Mellencamp has gone back to basics. This time around, his sound is lean and mean, emphasizing the unadorned fury of electric guitar and drums.
Classic as it is, his approach never seems stylized or derivative. Songs like "Crazy Ones" or "They're So Tough," which in other hands would have wound up as Rolling Stones clones, maintain their own musical identity because Mellencamp and his band refuse to give in to the obvious cliches. On a strictly musical level, "Whenever We Wanted" may be the most impressive album of his career.
Unfortunately, it's not all music, and the closer you look at the lyric sheet, the sillier this album begins to seem. Like the well-intentioned soul he aims to be, Mellencamp's heart is in the right place, but his ability to analyze the world's problems rarely runs deeper than lines like "I don't believe it has to be this way" (from "They're So Tough") or "Man that ain't no good" (from "Love and Happiness").
As such, "Whenever We Wanted" offers less insight than attitude. And that's a shame, because anybody capable of making music as eloquent as this ought to have something more to say.