Scarecrow – John Cougar Mellencamp (1985)

In 1983, the rock star formerly known as Johnny Cougar signaled a change in his songwriting style when he released the first album using his given name, Mellencamp. Wanting to be taken more seriously, John Cougar Mellencamp released Uh-Huh, which was the beginning of a musical transition from honky-tonk songs about adolescents and sex to rousing alt-country anthems about middle America.

Mellencamp continued that makeover with 1985’s Scarecrow, a darker, bleaker version of Uh Huh that still keeps the chip on his shoulder but reveals a more personal side. The opening cut, “Rain on the Scarecrow,” signals a new sound with its minor key introduction — a departure from his usual I-IV-V chord sequence (something every beginning amateur guitarist aims to emulate). He paints a bleak picture of the lives of farmers, singing “When you take away a man’s dignity he can’t work his fields and cows.”

Looking backward

Things are bad in Scarecrow. “As I run through this life /Sometimes it breaks my heart,” he confesses on “The Face of the Nation.” He’s looking backward instead of forward; “Grandma’s Theme” hearkens back to an earlier time as Mellencamp’s grandmother sings a melody from yesteryear, probably from her rocking chair. In “Rain on the Scarecrow,” he laments, “Son I’m just sorry they’re just memories for you now.” And in “Minutes to Memories,” the best track on the album, he sings, “Days turn to minutes and minutes to memories / Life sweeps away the dreams that we have planned.” It’s one of Mellencamp’s best melodies — bittersweet yet comforting. But in the last verse Mellencamp takes the verse an octave higher, bringing a sense of urgency to the song: “Another hot one out on Highway 11 / This is my life, it’s what I’ve chosen to do / There are no free rides / No one said it’d be easy.”

Producer Don Gehman has put the guitars and drums in the forefront, giving the whole album an immediacy and grit that Mellencamp’s other albums have lacked. (It’s a technique he would later use on R.E.M.’s Lifes Rich Pageant.) The snare is apparent on every song; Kenny Aronoff pounds the cadence into your brain and electric guitars ring out, accompanied on some songs by an acoustic guitar or mandolin.

Singles galore on Scarecrow

But Mellencamp still gives the record buyers what they want. “Lonely Ol’ Night” goes back to the sentiment addressed in “I Need a Lover:” “It’s a lonely ol’ night / Custom made for two lonely people like me and you.” “Small Town” is pure Americana and is the forerunner to Jason Aldean’s awful “Try That in a Small Town.” “Rumbleseat” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A” are rockabilly to the core and are full of energy if not predictable.

Mellencamp’s transformation would continue on 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee and be complete with 1991’s Whenever We Wanted, the first album attributed to “John Mellencamp.” He has turned from a punk to a respected midwestern singer-songwriter; listening to it happen on Scarecrow is a privilege.


Share this:

You Might Also Like