The Best That I Could Do: 1978-1988, by John Mellencamp
While John Mellencamp is certainly not my favorite artist, there is a lot of appeal to be found in his efforts at capturing life in the Midwest and small towns from someone who has a lot of interest in his family history, in questions of justice as well as in matters of personal relationships. This particular best-of collection covers the first decade of Mellencamp’s career and if you like early Mellencamp there is a lot that one can enjoy. Here is a track-by-track review:
I Need A Lover – Mellencamp’s first hit, this song is really two songs in one. First we have a two and a half-minute repetitive instrumental and then we have a three-minute repetitive song about the narrator’s need for a lover who won’t drive him crazy. The hook is good even if this isn’t the best work here.
Ain’t Even Done With The Night – This song is a really solid one, with some reflective lyrics that show the narrator’s concerns about his abilities as a lover and his struggles to do all that he wants to do in the night with someone he cares about. This is a touching song and one well worth enjoying.
Hurts So Good – A big hit, this song is one of those sorts of works that discusses the more painful and unpleasant side of love. If the song is a bit repetitive, it clearly has struck a nerve with many listeners.
Jack And Diane – While this is perhaps my least favorite John Mellencamp song, due to its repetitive music, this was his most popular song and it is easy to see that the theme of young love and concerns about growing up resonated with a lot of listeners even if not with me personally.
Crumblin’ Down – This is one of my own favorite songs on here, reminding me of the biblical language of the fall of Jericho. It feels like this song is a call for the walls of injustice to fall down and that is likely not by accident.
Pink Houses – Whether or not this song resonates with all listeners, this certainly is a song that is contrary to the spirit of contemporary times with its appreciation of people with a good attitude and a fond remembrance of the past and a recognition of America’s imperfections without feeling the need to be violent about it.
Authority Song – Somewhat contrary to the spirit of the last song, this song reflects the narrator’s opinion that he has fought authority all his life and come out grinning and successful so he feels no need to respect and honor authority. This song certainly better fits the contemporary mood but in consequence it is one whose message I do not appreciate.
Lonely Ol’ Night – Like a few songs on this album, this song reflects the loneliness of people who find themselves lonely together, hoping not to be lonely any longer. This is certainly a song that I find to be touching and sweet, for what it’s worth.
Small Town – If this is not exactly the best written song, it certainly does reflect a certain nostalgic charm towards small towns and the background that the singer comes from, but the song is pretty silly and not really all that good at defending small towns.
R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A. – This was an extremely popular song as well and if it is not a particularly smart song by the singer’s standards it is one that is easy to appreciate if you like rock songs that don’t demand too much thinking.
Paper In Fire – In contrast, this particular song has a strong gospel feel to it with references to the Bible and reflections on matters of life and death. Unsurprisingly enough, the narrator of this song has a positive approach to what would be seen by others as a grim subject.
Cherry Bomb – This song is a nostalgic song but when I listen to this song I wonder the most who the backup singers were, because some of them could be credited given the warmth that they add to the material. Sadly, this song doesn’t have any credits to anyone other than the singer himself, who waxes nostalgic only a decade into his career.
Check It Out – The last actual hit on this album, this song has a strong passion for justice, marking one of the political songs that Mellencamp is known for. The song is pretty catchy with a good melody as well, making it a case where the meaning of the song doesn’t detract from its pleasant sound as well.
Without Expression – A bonus track added to the end of this collection, this particular song explores the emotional life of a stoic and seemingly overly restrained Midwestern man, and it marks a touching and beautiful song as well.
Overall, this particular album exhibits that John Mellencamp created some successful songs over the course of the first decade of his career as a musician. To be sure, he had limited range and only a few topics that he returned to over and over again but when he did it was generally at least competent, and only ended up less than enjoyable when he tried to oversimplify his songs for popular consumption. And he would continue making great music for another decade or so, so this collection can properly be considered a part one to at least a two-part selection of songs from Mellencamp’s career.