John Mellencamp

in box

Phases & Stages

John Mellencamp

On the Rural Route 7609 (Mercury/Island/UMe)

Welcome to the chopped-and-screwed version of John Mellencamp. Like 2005 Billy Joel box set My Lives in its anti-hits recasting of the singer's songwriting auteurship – and falling short of Austinite Ian McLagan's stream-of-consciousness Faces treasure chest, Five Guys Walk Into a Bar ... – this 4-CD family album transcends the subject's commercial stereotyping by catalog free association. Even if On the Rural Route 7609 courts the gravity of Springsteen's Nebraska while sometimes coming off instead like lesser Son Volt, Mellencamp's camp redrafts the playing field. It's also the perfect lead-in to Indiana John's new monaural dust bowl disc, the T Bone Burnett-produced No Better Than This, follow-up to the pair's 2008 folk verité, Life Death Love and Freedom. In the cases of all three Mellencamp collections, it's Woody Guthrie meets "Jack and Diane" on the bread line. Rural Route's casual track-by-track annotation and missing sessionography offer no year for opener "Longest Days," some of Mellencamp's best melancholic nostalgia. Equally inspired by his grandmother, "Grandma's Theme" segues next sans its original album mate, an altogether absent "Small Town." An unplugged remake of both songs' sponsoring LP title cut, "Rain on the Scarecrow," constitutes a poor substitute for the original anthem. By contrast, a proto version of "Jack and Diane" and the subsequent track, the song's demo prepping the American Fool No. 1 hit, build beautifully. The folk monotone in which Mellencamp began delivering his songs in the late 1990s takes its toll until a preponderance of Freedom's Road (2007) pays off on disc two, which includes an alternate version of Chevy misfire "Our Country" into Big Daddy Reagan excoriation "Country Gentleman." Freedom's Road Bush fire "Rodeo Clown" bullets the bull's-eye, leavened by upbeat strummers "Love and Happiness" and "Pink Houses." The third disc hits (a "Cherry Bomb" demo) and misses ("L.U.V."), Son House cover "Death Letter" tap-dancing atop the song's true grit. Freedom's Road, all but two of its tunes accounted for on Rural Road, kicks off a final, hourlong installment sounding like the robust Midwestern hitsville of 1987 peak The Lonesome Jubilee. "Sweet Evening Breeze" even name-checks Austin, Texas, from off Human Wheels, whose Sun Records rocker "What If I Came Knocking" is one of the box's foundational hits. "Peaceful World" hooks. F.O.L.K. in the USA.

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