Friday, April 29, 2005

Every time I listen to it, I'm impressed by what a complete album John Mellencamp's Whenever We Wanted is. Definitely his strongest work, this is the sound of a man moving into his 40s with two divorces under his belt, increasingly soulful (and soul-searching) but not so much so that he doesn't still know how to kick out the jams. "Get A Leg Up" is one of the best, most unsung singles of Mellencamp's career, possibly because it was a nonstarter on the charts; this was John's first album in a decade not to spin off at least one top 40 single. Maybe it's just too good.

Opener "Love and Happiness" is explicitly political, taking on war, the cost of oil, and censorship, among other topics - it came on the cusp of Bush I's Iraq war. It also features a perfect blast/burst of crazy trumpet courtesy of Pharez Whitted (who'd later cut some jazz records for Motown). "Now More Than Ever" is a classic slice of Mellencamp, talkin' 'bout relationships, while his band backs him as sturdily as ever. They sound the tightest of his career, in fact, on Whenever, another reason this album still sounds so superb 14 years later. "I Ain't Ever Satisfied" and "They're So Tough" feature cowbell - what more do you need to know?

"Last Chance" is one of the most tender selections in the Mellencamp catalog, a simple tale of a man with nothing left - to lose, or otherwise. It's a sad, sad song, given perfect accompaniment; the bright slash of a guitar riff in the chorus is just the right punctuation to John's sentiments. He gets all kinds of late-'60s soulful on "Melting Pot," completely letting loose as the song riffs out, almost yelping, letting his emotions get loose and messy. That's the essence of great rock'n'roll, isn't it? [Its use of metaphor is fine, too.]

As it happens, the cover shoot for this album (and the accompanying "Get A Leg Up" video) were the first time John met model Elaine Irwin, who'd later become the third Mrs. Mellencamp; they're still together, and it looks like forever. And the album's artwork prominently features John's paintings for the first time, as well. To my ears, John had already grown up politically, but Whenever We Wanted was the album on which he really showed us his growth emotionally, his growth as a man. And for that, it's easily his finest album-length work. Island Def Jam's reissuing remastered version of his entire catalog - this one's part of a batch coming out in May - so you don't have any excuse. Thank me later. A

Correction: Whenever We Want DID send a couple of singles into the Top 40. "Get A Leg Up" hit the Top 20; I remember because I taped the song in '91 while listening to Shadoe Stevens' American Top 40 show, which was then based on the Billboard chart (yes, great song, the best Stones rip of his career). "Again Tonight" also hit the chart, although much lower.
I stand corrected (and should've looked this up before posting): "Get A Leg Up" hit #14 (shocking, frankly), and "Again Tonight" #36. Oops.
I couldn't agree more. This has been my favorite Mellencamp album for a long, long time. Scarecrow remains the distant second fave.
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