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September 12, 1993|JEAN ROSENBLUTH


"Human Wheels"


* * 1/2

If this were the debut album of a 22-year-old unknown, its stretches of lyrical acuity and musical charm would hold the promise of an invigorating artist. But "Human Wheels" is the 12th studio effort by a recognized talent who has recently channeled much of his creative energy into filmmaking and painting. As such, its brilliant moments seem merely to ring with the echoes of what once was.

Mellencamp has always inhabited a world of extremes, but on this album he seems almost obsessed with black-and-white themes--sin and salvation, the haves and the have-nots, the meaning of life (the title track) versus fancy footwear (the vaguely homophobic "French Shoes"). There are no shades of gray here.

Such extremes sometimes make for great music--the scorching, bittersweet "What If I Came Knocking" and the title track, to which Mellencamp's odd, underwhelmed vocals bring a certain clarity, particularly stand out. But other times his lack of moderation results in lyrically silly cacophony: "When Jesus Left Birmingham," for instance, is almost unlistenable.

Mellencamp may yet come up with another record on the elevated creative plane of "Scarecrow" and "Lonesome Jubilee." Three albums later, however, "Human Wheels" spins him that much farther away.

New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). Five stars (a classic) is reserved for retrospective albums.

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