Only John Mellencamp, whose career began with a series of wrong turns, raw determination, and the audaciousness to demand he be taken seriously could create a box set as strange, representative, and labyrinthine as On the Rural Route 7609. In the era of the “track,” Mellencamp has issued a massive, beautifully packaged, and exhaustively annotated four-disc career retrospective that doesn’t lean on his hits (many aren’t here), but rather on more obscure album cuts, outtakes, rarities (17 selections make their debuts here), and more recent material -- numerous selections come from 2007’s Freedom’s Road and 2008’s Life Love Death and Freedom. In Anthony DeCurtis' excellent liner essay/interview, Mellencamp claims he isn’t “trying to prove anything. . . it was a way for them to discover songs of mine that perhaps were overlooked because of the songs that were so popular on the radio.” Given his choice of material, he may not feel that his career-long demand has been met yet.
The address in the title of On the Rural Route 7609 denotes his recording span: 1976-2009, to date. The box isn’t structured chronologically, but as four free standing albums, each with its own flavor and themes. In the hardbound book-like package, Mellencamp’s and DeCurtis’ comments illustrate each track. Disc one opens with "Longest Days.” Like many of its songs, it deals with death; in this case, his grandmother’s. She makes her own ghostly appearance, singing on the next track! “Rural Route” is next up, a song signifying another side of “Small Town” America (the song isn’t here), where the "air stinks of crystal meth,” as it relates a tale of murder and rape. (It’s a helluva way to open a box set.) Throughout -- in “Jackie Brown,” an alternate “Rain on the Scarecrow,” two versions of “Jim Crow” (one read by Cornell West) -- Mellencamp reveals American darkness and violence, followed by Mellencamp's themes of personal accountability and consequence -- “Big Daddy of Them All,” an alternate “Deep Blue Heart” with Trisha Yearwood, “Forgiveness,” and “Don’t Need This Body." It closes with the burden of nostalgia for simpler times: an early tape of “Jenny at 16,” the model for “Jack and Diane,” is followed by the writing demo for the song and the album version. Disc two begins with Joanne Woodward reading the lyrics to “The Real Life,” and ends with the ironic “Pink Houses.” This disc is about the conflicting perceptions of America’s inhabitants; about what it actually is as its national consciousness changes: a writing demo for “Authority Song,” "The Full Catastrophe" (written for Johnny Cash), “To Washington,” the demo of “Our Country,” and “Rodeo Clown” underscore this. Disc three reflects Mellencamp’s personal side with an acoustic ”Void in My Heart” and “Sugar Marie” (redone), a demo for “Cherry Bomb,” a remixed “L.U.V.,” the single version of “When Jesus Left America,” “Thank You” from a 2004 hits collection, and a new cut, “Some Day the Rains Will Fall.” Disc four concerns itself with memory, regret, acceptance, and the fleeting nature of life. Among its rarities are his version of “Colored Lights” (written for the Blasters), a demo for “Peaceful World,” an acoustic “To M.G. (Wherever She May Be),” and an alternate, scarier “Rural Route.”
Musically, there are no missteps; for all its winding paths and circles within circles, On Rural Route 7609 makes its case and perhaps sets a new standard for career retrospectives. Mellencamp is undoubtedly among the best rock & roll American singer/songwriters -- on or off the charts. The question is, does he believe it?