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Mellencamp mixes old and new on latest release

John Mellencamp.
Mercury Records.

By Scott Deskin
Associate Arts Editor

It's a collection of nine simple, straight-ahead tunes that hearken back to his "John Cougar" period of the early 1980s. This album comes out less than a year after his previous release, Human Wheels, which was hailed at the time as a simultaneous reclaiming of roots and a maturing of sentiment. If it lacked the scope and melodic finesse of such albums as his Scarecrow (1985) and The Lonesome Jubilee (1987), it forged a more honest, relaxed path that Mellencamp continues on his latest album.

Although he hasn't been blessed with a number-one single since "Paper in Fire," John Mellencamp still possesses a knack for old-fashioned rock 'n' roll. Mellencamp isn't afraid to explore the harsher sides of American society in his music, but he isn't going to shy away from its small victories and pleasures. Like the naked body entwined with barbed wire on the album's cover, Dance Naked likes to juxtapose joy with sorrow and triumph with tragedy in its lyrics. He recorded and mixed the entire album in two weeks at a recording studio, presumably to get a feel for the material and perform in a pared-down fashion for a natural sound.

The title track leads off the album, and although the tune sounds like a throwaway, the lyrics help to set the mood for the rest of the album: "I want you to dance naked/So I can see you/I'd like to get to know you/You don't have to act naughty." So much for the slow, gentle approach. Other songs offer family portraits ("Brothers"), global awareness ("Another Sunny Day 12/25"), and self-awareness ("The Breakout"). The simple evocative morals of the lyrics complement the simple arrangements of guitars and drums in songs like "Too Much to Think About," which - as Mellencamp himself has stated - hasn't been apparent on his albums since the single "Hurts So Good" in 1982.

Most likely, the biggest song on the album (i.e., most likely to get radio airplay) is his cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night," which he shares as a duet with newcomer Me'Shell NdegéOcello. This is a sparer, tighter version than Morrison's version (note the missing horns and the wailing guitars), which doesn't better its source material but adds some funk and jubilation about midway through the album. The next song, "L.U.V.," is a protest song that is miles from Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," but nevertheless provides a little social commentary about middle America.

Dance Naked is not a tour-de-force for Mellencamp. As stated above, the songs come out fast and relatively laid-back, and they don't quite carry enough intensity to sway the listener to try and sing along. But the music is good enough to get its audience moving around to its emotional beat. Dance Naked shows that John Mellencamp is still alive and kicking, a vital force to be reckoned with into the next century.