OUTSTANDING IN ITS FIELD
Each new Bruce Springsteen album seems to come with the usual plaudits of "best since...." (insert relevant rock or acoustic album here). It's clearly nonsense as his latest album is usually his best since his previously released one such is his quality control that there have only been one or two duds in a fifty year career.
His two most recent releases "Western Stars" and "A Letter To You" are very much testament to that. Both records have been rightly acclaimed by both critics and fans. He is at ease with his own changing circumstances and those of the world around him and so manages to write with increasing sympathy. He has always been a compassionate performer whose intentions are wholeheartedly authentic.
No superstar can have conceived of their path to success without some form of artifice but more than most, Springsteen's mission has been based on honesty.
It seems strange then to recall that his rise to legendary status was not as meteoric as a casual observer might assume. His dues were certainly paid on the road and in the studio long before his breakthrough - and even this fell very much into two phases.
Firstly, it was not until his third album, the epic "Born To Run" when Jon Landau wrote that he had seen in Springsteen "the future of rock 'n' roll" that he began to sell in any real numbers and sold out his tours. This came not least from the maturing of his writing and playing.
However, it would be ten more years until the rest of the world really fell into line with the release of the equally epic "Born In The USA". Springsteen had always really been a mouthpiece for the American working man and so whilst he had supporters elsewhere, like country and western music, his records always felt, until then at least, that they were singing in a language relevant between the East Coast and West Coast alone. With 1984's "Born In The USA", he seemed to find a sensibility that piqued interest outside America. Perhaps it is unsurprising that it is the heavily pop (and uncharacteristic) "Dancing In The Dark" with its synth hooks that should have breached the defences of the rest of the world.
So unstoppably successful was the album and its subsequent tour that many of its themes seemed to be lost; there are paeans to America's working man of course in tracks like the slight "Working On The Highway" but there is nostalgia, strained family relationships and lost ambitions throughout - often, like "Glory Days", hidden behind a rollicking bar-room roll.
Of course, the bloodiest victim has always been the title track which was written to highlight the plight and disillusionment of returning Vietnam War veterans but was adopted as an anthem of national pride, when ironically it was intended to have the opposite effect. Several presidential candidates have had to be reminded of the fact by Springsteen's camp.
It is still a great album but one whose familiarity leads me to often leave it on the shelf when the Springsteen mood takes me. It's a shame because it is a strong and passionate recording but somehow seems to carry less stature than say "Nebraska" or "Darkness On the Edge Of Town". That's success for you I suppose.
Strangely, I don't intend to write about Springsteen or "Born In The USA" - though I shall undoubtedly return to them as reference points - but an album that serves as a truly credible companion piece, John Cougar Mellencamp's "Scarecrow" from 1985.
It is an album that is often rightly compared to Springsteen's and yet I find that its lack of familiarity means that it has not lost any of its bite or authenticity. Whilst it is easy to see Mellencamp as a rural copy of Springsteen's blue collar attitude, his sensitivity is no less genuine.
Indeed, Mellencamp had to do the hard yards to break through as well. He had had to endure five years as John Cougar - including what must have been a buttock-clenchingly awkward "John Cougar Day" celebration back in his Indiana hometown - before any kind of enduring success arrived with his "American Fool" album in 1982. Songs such as "Jack & Diane" and "Hurts So Good" whilst hugely popular, played to the nascent MTV audience, desperate at that point for some homegrown talent. His writing lacked real emotional depth and gave only the merest hint of any authentic talent - he was a set of cheekbones, like Rick Springfield, though with a great voice.
However, he was an artist tired of his persona and so much power did he have at that time with his record company that he claimed his name back and for "Uh-Huh" in 1983 Mellencamp was added to his previous stage name. Something was happening and that album, with tracks like "Pink Houses" and "Crumblin' Down" showed a quality that was surprising and enjoyable. He seemed another natural successor to someone like John Fogerty with his tales of working class middle America.
There certainly seems to have been something of a trend for a more authentic homegrown sound in the US at the time - perhaps as a reaction to the MTV popinjays from the UK - as even Fogerty himself came out of self-imposed exile and produced the tremendous "Centerfield" which really sounded like an album he could have made in 1971.
Meanwhile by the time, Mellencamp came to record "Scarecrow" he returned to his newly built studio back home in Indiana to create it and the album drips with the atmosphere he found on home turf. This album reflects many of the same themes as Springsteen, looking back at declining community life and lost personal opportunities.
A track like "Stand For Something" which picks up the theme of his previous album's "Authority Song" may not pick a target to "stand for" but it is borne out of a similar disenchantment with the state of America in the mid 80s. Like Springsteen's "No Surrender" it calls for action but instead it is in the here and now. It is one of the few moments on the album when his writing is that vague.
The song is full of nostalgic reminiscences and this is revisited in the effervescent "R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A." which is a roaring tribute to the records of his youth. Indeed, before recording the album Mellencamp had made the band learn around a hundred old singles to kick off the feel he hoped to create and make the band gel. I can honestly say that the band on "Scarecrow" swings more than the E-Street Band on the corresponding album - I know this is sacrilege to some but genuinely there is a looser feel and less bombastic mood around the album. It comes across as correspondingly rootsier.
"Lonely Old Night" and "Small Town" were both big American hits but they seemed to really hit a chord with their tales of the lost spirit of communities that was engulfing the nation. They may be brightly produced but they are enormously desolate songs. They are a neat counterpoint to "My Hometown".
The album was originally to be titled "This Old World" as Mellencamp wanted to clearly reflect what he felt was being lost and that reflected his own personal plight following his divorce and then death of family patriarch, his grandfather. He would ask his grandmother to sing "Grandma's Theme" an excerpt from the old folk standard "The Baggage Coach" a song she had been taught as a child.
It presents a welcome interlude after the album's opener and dark masterpiece "Rain On The Scarecrow" which is a savage attack on the state of American farms at the time. He writes of 97 families dying and 97 farms sold and the scar this was leaving across his homeland. It is an incredible scene-setter for the album with a sinister guitar figure looping round and round while the "blood on the plough" refrain takes hold.
You would be hard-pressed to hear a song more bitter even from Springsteen. This is a theme that hurts because it is so very personal. Every lyric he spits out - particularly at his former friend - is venomous, demanding change.
As an opening track, it is devastatingly powerful.
The plight of rural communities is as heartfelt an issue for Mellencamp as the similar one befalling the industrial workers of New Jersey and Pennsylvania for Springsteen or indeed Billy Joel which is why this album should be considered a companion not an imitation. The themes are sadly universal.
On the back of this album, Mellencamp became one of the chief instigators of "Farm Aid" with Willie Nelson and Neil Young which was a charitable organisation created to help America's family farmers. It continues now into its fourth decade. Mellencamp's continued support is as much an indication of his commitment as that of his New Jersey counterpart.
It is interesting when you look at the participants in "Farm Aid" it has become in the last 20 years dominated by country and western artists, hugely successful in North America but with only small audiences outside. This genre was hugely unfashionable back in the mid 80s until what became knows as the "big hats" such as Clint Black became popular but this audience found its bard then with John Mellencamp and songs like "The Face Of The Nation". He would delve more deeply into roots America with his next recording the accomplished "The Lonesome Jubilee" where he introduced fiddle playing into the band to create an even more Americana soundscape. It is not without some grain of truth, I would add, that Mellencamp was one of the creators of Alternative Country.
As I said earlier, there has long been a school of thought that Mellencamp is just a pale countrified imitation of the Boss but this is misguided and unfair. Springsteen himself certainly never seemed to think so and when he was awarded the Medal of Honour at the Kennedy Center it was Mellencamp who performed "Born In The USA" as a tribute.
There are however, many parallels between the two artists with their blue collar backgrounds and their depictions of the lives of ordinary working people. Both find much inspiration in their pasts and have a tendency to compare them unfavourably with current circumstances. Both are students of rock and roll's past borrowing influences from Dylan, The Stones and the 45s of their youths.
And most importantly, both went through quite a steep learning curve to gain the kind of acclaim and success they sought, improving their techniques and their songwriting significantly along their respective journeys.
Whilst Springsteen's flame has kept burning brightly across the decades, Mellencamp's seems to light up only his loyal fans, though there are plenty of them and that seems to satisfy them. I suggest that, as a man whose early career was built on artifice and the creation of an image with which he was never truly comfortable, the demons, both personal and musical took their time to dissipate. He now seems to have found a ledge of authenticity on which he is more than happy to perch.
I always end up toying with the analogy of De Niro and Di Caprio - both amongst the finest ever screen actors. De Niro, like Springsteen, can so easily take on everyman but Di Caprio is always taken less seriously (at least until very recently) because he was always seen as "pretty". The Springsteen versus Mellencamp comparison has perhaps left a similar legacy - particularly when it all started with the ridiculous "Cougar" monicker.
Mellencamp can rock it up as well as anyone but his convictions are serious and his motives genuine. Symbolically, on the cover of "Scarecrow", there is a line drawn through the name "Cougar" and this is undoubtedly the moment when a musical line was drawn as well. It has all the emotional highs and lows of "Born In The USA" and is far more obviously angry.
However, whereas Springsteen was experimenting a little in terms of production and promotion in order to broaden his reach, Mellencamp seems to have been very consciously stripping out anything that would play to his 'former existence'. For that, his record now provides greater sense of tension and cohesion - more in line with "Darkness" or indeed the gloomier "Tunnel Of Love". It may be its lack of familiarity (at least to British ears) but that deficiency is one I would urge you to correct.