One for America

So, how many weeks am I behind? I literally printed out my annotation page for this and it’s just been sitting on my dresser, staring and making me feel guilty for putting this off. It’s not that I don’t enjoy doing this, it’s just doing it well requires some research. I guess maybe I could just make stuff up, but that wouldn’t do me or you any good. So here we are. I’m bringing you an American classic for the Fourth. Or… you know. The fifth.

Album: American Fool                                                             Artist: John “Cougar” (Mellencamp)


Before I say anything about this album, I’m going to not only give you background, but also share what critics have to say because I think it might help you understand Mellencamp a little better.

American Fool was actually John Mellencamp’s fifth album. It was released in 1982 on the label Riva Records (which also produced Rod Stewart and not much more), and Mellencamp and Don Gehman produced the album. American Fool was the first Mellencamp album to be clearly successful — it managed to hit the number one spot on the Billboard 200 and both of it’s singles (“Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane”) were both wildly successful. I mean, what’s more American than two American kids growing up in the Heartland? (That was terrible, and I’m sorry).

But you see, critics weren’t exactly in love. Mellencamp had previously released albums under the name “Johnny Cougar” and “John Cougar,” and from what I understand he didn’t find himself to be very sincere about his music and critics felt the same way. I really think that he was one of those artists who just had the unfortunate luck of running into some pushy people who wanted to market him a certain way, and artists who are just starting out usually find they have little say if they want to actually put out their music.

So, in light of his previous music, critical reception to American Fool was mixed to say the least. Many critics already held too much of a grudge and some found it hard to believe Mellencamp could be anything but a sellout. Rolling Stone’s Ken Emerson claimed that Mellencamp’s voice “oozes insincerity” on the whole album, and basically called him a Springsteen/Petty knockoff.

Overall, I think a lot of critics agreed this was a better album though. Emerson even admitted “[Cougar’s] rock n’ roll [was] becoming more convincing.” All Music’s Thomas Erlewine agreed; he said the album was a good kind of “shock” and also admitted that Mellencamp was getting better.

I’m pretty sure Mellencamp himself agrees with the critics. I know he doesn’t find some of his old stuff to be good music, and he said himself American Fool has about “three good songs” and “the rest is just filler.”

My review?

I agree one hundred percent. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love to put this record on but I find that more than half the songs on the album are formulaic and I lose interest. The album opens with “Hurts So Good,” which is definitely a strong start, and that track is followed up with “Jack & Diane.” I think anyone would agree those are the two strongest songs on the album. I have to hear “Jack & Diane” maybe twice a shift every time I work at my second job and I still love that song, so obviously Mellencamp did something right there.

The album has some great riffs — the acoustic on “Jack & Diane” and the electric on “Danger List” are classics — and Mellencamp’s band plays pretty well on the album. I think this particular brand of “Heartland rock” was sort of a new twist at the time and I think that’s why everyone liked the album so much. There’s some great (and very 80s) drum beats and the overall ensemble just really comes together, and I think the lyrical content is just really relatable.

In sum, it’s a good album. It’s fun to listen to. It’s just not a great album. The first few tracks are the best though, and by the time you get to the end of “Weakest Moments” you’re definitely ready to move on because that’s a terrible song. But in general, it’s good, and it’s an American staple.

Maybe we’ll get lucky and I’ll post again before another month rolls around. Until then though, never stop listening!

Honorable Song Mentions: Hurts So Good, Jack & Diane, Danger List, China Girl

***EDIT: reviews mentioned can be found at the links below

Rolling Stone — Ken Emerson’s review of American Fool

AllMusic — Thomas Erlewine’s review of American Fool


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