Friday, September 03, 2010

"Love At First Sight" / John Mellencamp

I had a Sirius Senior Moment today -- when this song came on, I was so riveted, so lost in the music, I had no idea where I was or what I was doing. (Lucky I didn't crash the car.) It's been a while since I've heard any new John Mellencamp material, and the rootsy simplicity of this one took me by surprise.

It reminded me of an argument I'd been having with a fellow music fan, who insisted that Bruce Springsteen deserved my attention because he sometimes performs folky acoustic numbers. No, I insisted, it's not the arena rock anthems I object to with Springsteen -- it's his lack of wit or irony. (And you can have wit in an arena rock anthem -- look at Queen.) And now comes John Mellencamp to show up the Boss, with a song that's both stripped-down AND funny.

It's time to forgive Mellencamp the Chevy ads, forgive him for Farm Aid (why shouldn't a small-town Hoosier support American farmers?), and yes, even forgive him for letting his early managers convince him to perform as Johnny Cougar. (The same managers did have the sense to book him as an opening act for the Kinks.) With a refreshing lack of pretension or hype, Mellencamp has gone on making solid mid-American rock for many years now, music that plays to the heart of the country. And I'm just enough of an expatriate Hoosier to dig it.

I've just ordered his new album, No Better Than This, and from the preview samples I suspect I'm going to love it. Sounds like it's pretty much all acoustic, and recorded (in mono, no less!) at iconic places like Sun Studios in Memphis -- how's that for going back to basics? If the songwriting is as good as this throughout, then I think Johnny M's got hisself a career-capping masterpiece.

How many rock songs have gushed about "love at first sight"? It's a universal teenage emotion, and therefore practically the founding conceit of all pop music. But now listen to how Johnny turns it on its head.

The songwriting structure couldn't be simpler -- the first three lines of every verse start with "let's suppose," working through a relationship from that very first besotted glance. In the course of it, they kiss, make love in the back of a car, get engaged, get married -- "like two turtledoves," he casually describes them. They're adorable, like Mellencamp's hometown Romeo and Juliet from his early classic, "Jack and Diane." But hold on, he's just getting started.

In the second section, his raspy voice and laidback strumming don't change, but nagging doubts begin to surface about that iffy "suppose." "Let's suppose our dreams came true, just like they're 'sposed to do" -- well, as we all know, there's no ironclad guarantee. (I think of Nick Lowe's woefully funny "Where's My Everything?" demanding the standard wife, house, and kids that society has promised him.)

And in the third section things fall apart, as things often do. They have kids, they fight, they get bored, they have money troubles, they cheat, they storm out of the house. "Let's suppose you found another man / And hit me in the head with a frying pan" -- I love that absurd cartoon image, like Olive Oyl beaning Popeye. (See him swaying on his feet, eyes crossed; hear the tweeting bird sound effects.) It's true comic relief, allowing us to laugh instead of crying at the everyday domestic tragedy.

I can just picture John's wicked grin, rocking back on his stool, as he wraps up the fourth section, deciding that they should just shake hands and be friends -- save themselves all those years of grief and turmoil. He's no teenager, that's for sure; he's a guy who's been around the block a time or two, and he knows whereof he speaks. The dogged repetition of phrases and melody hammers home life's weary lessons. It only takes less than five minutes to click through all the possible heartbreaks, like changing channels with his remote control. He plays them all out in his imagination, and then decides it's not worth the effort. For once, wisdom triumphs over hormones.

Like the worn denim of broken-in work jeans, the solo acoustic arrangement is just right for this song. It's no teenage pop confection, no angry young man's howl of protest -- this is music for grown-ups. So let's get real -- life sucks, and love dies. You can cry about it, or you can laugh. Me, I'm going with the laughter.


Neon Sign said...

Thank you, Holly. I like this song. I do prefer him over Springsteen. Better singer for one thing. I read a quote somewhere that Springsteen sings like he swallowed a turkey. I tend to agree.

Uncle E said...

I remember winning the vinyl of American Fool at the county fair while a teenager. I think it was a dart game or something...anyway, I've always loved the guys sincerity, you can tell he's trying really, really hard to shake off that unfair label as the "poor man's Springsteen". At least he didn't release a musical abomination along the lines of Born In The USA. That said, I DO enjoy Born to Run. Just not as much as Scarecrow...

Holly A Hughes said...

Long, long ago Bruce Springsteen was worth listening to. Now he's just another self-involved artiste.

Another fact about this album that I only learned today, where I got the CD from Amazon -- it was produced by the one and only T-Bone Burnett. That explains a lot about the burnished beauty of these tracks. Of course, you don't just sign up T-Bone and let him transform your album -- you have to be the real deal in the first place, to even get T-Bone interested in working with you. That's another very powerful mark in Mellencamp's favor.