Photographers: Michael Halsband; Elaine Irwin.
First off, this 19-disc box is not a complete recorded works of John Mellencamp. It excises his earliest years as Johnny Cougar -- a Main Man-inspired moniker that resulted in three albums he's disowned, but which really aren't that bad at all -- beginning the story with 1979's John Cougar, the album where he truncated his name and toughened up his sound. It still took him a while until he scored a real breakthrough, and it arrived when he tightened up his attack with the assistance of producer Don Gehman and came up with the often-excellent American Fool, a record that sailed through on the strength of its hit singles ("Hurts So Good," as hard a rocker as he ever did, and the teenage romance "Jack & Diane") and helped make Mellencamp the kind of Midwestern rocker who weathered shifting fashions, not unlike Bob Seger. Mellencamp consolidated things with 1983's Uh-Huh, when Kenny Aronoff eased on over to his position on drums, and when the singer/songwriter's blue-collar Springsteen aspirations become apparent. His rock got leaner and harder here -- "Crumblin' Down" is merciless, as is "Authority Song" -- but he started co-writing with John Prine, which was a greater indication of his artistic intentions. Scarecrow, also produced by Gehman, followed, and it was as good as Mellencamp ever got, a fat-free collection of Midwestern rock & roll that treated thwarted dreams of the rust belt as if they were the grist for noir; it helped that Mellencamp still liked to rock, cranking out "Rumbleseat" and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." in between the odes to dying traditions. On The Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy, Mellencamp staked his claim upon the fading roots rock, and he'd later make that his specialty on a series of '90s albums that were always determined to sacrifice user-friendliness for the sake of tradition and ambition. Every one of those albums, from the '80s peak through his sepia-toned blues and folk for the new millennium, is here in its expanded 2005 incarnation. If the latter-day albums benefit from craft and sobriety, what makes the greatest impression are the earliest albums, the records where he's intent on being heard fighting to leave his Indiana home, a home to which he'd later return. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine