Prairie populist or pop singer? For most of the last decade, the man whose social conscience was once defined by "Hurts So Good" has struggled with his two identities, trying to make the jaunty, carefree spirit of the traditional rock 'n' roll music he has always written accommodate lyrics reflecting his burgeoning awareness of the world's woes.
The 1985 "Scarecrow" and 1987 "Lonesome Jubilee" albums were masterful marriages of fun and food for thought, but by 1989's "Big Daddy," Mellencamp's political and social introspection had overwhelmed his other half.
On "Whenever We Wanted," the Indiana native is almost back in balance. Such good-times-and-girls songs as "Get a Leg Up" and the Yardbirds-meets-the-Byrds-textured title track rank with his best. The "serious" numbers, however, display a bit less lyrical subtlety than his past think pieces. "Now More Than Ever" is a mushy mess, bogged down by greeting-card verse. "Love and Happiness" is more successful, a focused indictment of Desert Shield/Storm punctuated by a searing trumpet.
The album's most moving number is its least easy to categorize. "Last Chance," which musically suggests that the artist has been listening to Chris Isaak, carries a lyrical message far less obvious than those of the other songs. The song is both Mellencamps--the entertainer and the agitator--at their best.
Rating: * * *
* WAIT, THERE'S MORE: New releases by Nirvana, Urban Dance Squad, the Cult, Patty Loveless and BeBe & CeCe Winans. Pages 68, 69, 70.