I really like John Mellencamp, but I have always seen him as an underdog: Not as smart as Springsteen, not as pretty as Bon Jovi, not as cool as Tom Petty – he always seems to come in second in any comparison.
So how does his 1983 collection of heartland rock hold up against the mind-melting industrial assault unleashed by Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails in what has to be the weirdest match-up so far in the VanJam Music War?
Uh-huh was Mellencamp’s seventh album (that is not a typo), but only his second as a household name following the breakthrough smash of American Fool; and he now had enough clout to make an album on his own terms (and to bring back his real last name after living as Mr. Cougar in an effort to appease record labels and be more marketable). It’s a solid album. “Pink Houses” belongs on the same shelf as “Born in the USA”, and everything else is damn fine as well. Particularly surprising is “Jackie O”, which was written with John Prine and sounds like a children’s song.
But Downward Spiral – a ferocious mash-up of heavy metal and synth pop – is a landmark 90s album that blew minds and inspired imitators. As described in this excellent Stereogum review, restless adolescents everywhere went bananas for it as they discovered a dark world view entirely apart from their parents and teachers. What fun to go to a party and scream “I want to fuck you like an animal” and “God is dead and no one cares/if there is a hell I’ll see you there”. It’s a concept album about a guy losing his mind and eventually killing himself (I think that’s what happens, anyway). It’s terrifying. It could be the soundtrack to a school shooting. Fortunately, Reznor was smart enough to sprinkle in just enough sweetness and beauty to keep you from jumping in front of a train, like when he follows the horrifying “Big Man with a Gun” with the tenderness of “A Warm Place”. It probably goes without saying, but the signature song “Closer” is fucking amazing.
Uh-huh is cute by comparison. In the rousing “Authority Song”, Mellencamp admits “when I fight authority, authority always wins”. I think the last time authority fought Reznor, he ate its liver with some fava beans and nice Chianti.
Uh-huh? Nuh uh. Sadly, the underdog must come in second yet again.
WINNER: Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral (2 points)
Next week’s battle – #31: Roxy Music, Avalon (1982) vs. Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind (1997)