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Kissing a Mule

Robert Zimmerman wanted to emulate Woody Guthrie, while John Mellencamp aspired to be the next-to-last David Bowie, and here they are at fateful birthdays 60 and 50 respectively, labelmate twins with new albums out that must be their best in years. Names were changed along the way to project the innocent: the compulsive auteur dubbed himself"Bob Dylan," but the terminal Hoosier had that goofy "Johnny Cougar" moniker thrust upon him by manager Tony DeFries, in a stroke of promo perversity that looks luckier for John all the time. If his first album, 1976's Chestnut Street Incident, had come out under his real handle, his pop presence might well have sunk for good like the stone in Bowie's third navel. Instead, Mellencamp embarked on the long motorcycle march to avenge DeFries's theft of his identity, and as his billing mutated over the years, so did his rock'n'roll soul—its journey from the demo-taped sucker of the first album to the flippant punkputz of John Cougarand Nothin' Matters and What If It Did, and then to the commercial-breakthrough roots-waver of American Fooland Uh-Huhwas a dramatic, if never quite an unbroken, learning curve.

Mellencamp's commercial and critical fortunes crossed most grandly on Scarecrowand The Lonesome Jubilee; early carpers had dismissed him as a Springsteen imitator, but by the mid '80s, he'd bested the Boss with a more expressive voice, a more abiding gift for hooks and melodies, and (most crucially) more ego than Bruce ever seemed to marshal. Mellencamp's bratty Inner Hick made for more unpredictability and confrontation than Springsteen's seaboard-choirboy correctness, even when they were working the same populist-airplay barricades. But since 1987, Mellencamp's been trying to make another album as triumphant as The Lonesome Jubilee—another set that asks as many riddle-of-life questions in such warm-bodied music. John's rocked back and forth between those poles, from the bleak wages-of-superstardom Big Daddyand the heavy-handed state-of-the-nation Human Wheels,to the generic Mellenparties Whenever We Wantedand Dance Naked—all great listening, but none quite sharing the casual mastery of his midterm peak.

Since surviving the 1994 heart attack brought on by dancing naked in one's chilly forties, Mellencamp has pushed harder to achieve at least one more popular-cum-artistic milestone. 1996's Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky, with its weird hip-hop-Hoosier hankerings, steps in some eclectic cowpies, but his first Columbia set, 1998's John Mellencampis a subtly powerful second breakthrough, full of quietly disquieting what-comes-next? songs. Now we have Cuttin' Heads, which some skeezixes are calling the worthy successor to The Lonesome Jubilee, though that assessment may be colored more by the incessant search for anthems in post-September 11 America than by the content.

Mellencamp had completed Cuttin' Headsbefore the World Trade Center fell, and has since publicly questioned the U.S. military attack on Afghanistan (which might account for his less-than-rousing reception from the police officers and firefighters at VH1's Concert for New York City), but the fact that his new album is front-loaded with heavy mettle right at our nation's moment of emergency is enough to grant it relevance to many. There seems to have been some line-cutting among the tunes on Cuttin' Heads, as the title number is the first track, but the second—the Nelly-buoyant ride "Peaceful World"—is in fact the debut single/video. Both songs are star- and statement-heavy: Motown neodiva India.Arie shares "Peaceful World" 's swooping-through-the-heartland chorus, while in "Cuttin' Heads," Public Enemy's Chuck D. raps an impassioned plea against the use of the N-word by whites or blacks, as a hopped-up moral to the racial-prejudice anecdote Mellencamp lays over the thud-rhythm alarm of the first half of the song. "Peaceful World" is also a lyrical attack on racism, more specific in its passion than in its polemics; it's impossible to tell from the context how Mellencamp defines the "politically correct" attitude he disdains, or whether it's just a useful fiction of a rhyme. But his righteous tone rings those bells.

The stately "Deep Blue Heart" next has Mellencamp harmonizing with Trisha Yearwood, in some ways a country India.Arie flava of the year. After trooping so many throbbing cameos and concepts through those first three tunes, though, Mellencamp suddenly relaxes with his own groove troupe on the balance of Cuttin' Heads, sliding through seven numbers of subtle smarty-pants craft, mostly about love and longing in that same sexual Indiana featured on his self-titled 1998 studio set. Among these, Mellencamp's country-punched "Crazy Island" metaphor for America might've worked better as the album's opener/title than the official choice does, but in this digital age, we can just do our own reordering.

The Lonesome Jubileewas rich with populist love among the Reaganesque theft, with a ready America-engorged youth we may not see again after all the lonely milestones and symbols that fell in 2001. Cuttin' Headsrepresents John Mellencamp's assertive attempt to reclaim that secret jubilation at midlife, in a set as new-century strange and beautiful as Bob Dylan's own comeback of this freeze-dried season. Bowie's long-gone as a Mellencampy role model, and John's personal acoustic guitar in fact has sported a Hoosierese rendering of Woody Guthrie's legendary "This Machine Kills Fascists" motto in recent years. Pretty heady company that little bastard's keeping under his own name's authority these days.

 
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