“CUTTIN’ HEADS”…and to the chase

American Boy. American Man. American Fool. John Mellencamp has been each in spades. He plied his AM radio hookcraft in FM’s glory days, though never quite becoming the workingman’s patron saint a la Springsteen, a part of the fabric of our culture. But as the boy’s become a man, he’s also let himself appear vulnerable – and it’s in the chambers of his doubting heart that this American’s connections are strongest.

But, in the end, timing is everything, and it’s timing that gets him over once more. For Mellencamp, Cuttin’ Heads (Columbia) started as a personal pondering of social and sexual politics, only to be transformed by 9/11 into a State of the Union address in every sense. Tackling racism, pettiness, anger and the way we treat each other culturally, Mellencamp unflinchingly deconstructs the erosion of r-e-s-p-e-c-t and tries to rebuild it through a series of images that paint America and Americans the way we are. Of course, Mellencamp has never balked at embracing issues – think his populist Scarecrow – but this album shows that he’s also lately been embracing the city street, putting his music where his mouth is, as it were. Those who’ve kept up with his releases know that’s not new, either, but never before have his urbanities been so well integrated into his backroad roots-rock.

With a staccato beat and some rough-edged guitar, Mellencamp pitches the bigotry story of "Cuttin’ Heads" against a James Brown-invoking testimonial from Chuck D, who professes street cred ain’t all about the marketing. To further reinforce, Pat Peterson wails "Don’t call me nigger because you know I don’t like it like that."

As the boy’s become a man, he’s let himself appear vulnerable.

Embracing a far more elegant – but no less infectious – hook on "Peaceful World," the Indiana-based songwriter offers an almost prayerlike meditation on how it should be. Casting against the notion of a road trip to leave it all behind, Mellencamp and India.Arie offer a straightforward pledge against racism: "Better get hip to what Martin Luther King had to say … Hatred to each other is not OK ... If you’re not part of the future then get out of the way."

This embrace of the hiphopcracy is much more than an aging rocker’s self-conscious grab for relevancy. But it’s also not the whole disc. "Deep Blue Heart" finds Mellencamp returning straight to the country to brood in close harmony with Trisha Yearwood; the song’s about love’s death and the shroud that cloaks its battered remains. Placed amongst the more political content, it almost reads as an elegy for America – or the mourning serves as prelude to the sexual/romantic explorations to follow.

Both "Just Like You" and "The Same Way I Do" trace fragile connections, affections he’s afraid will break or evaporate. Yet those affections deliver him from the futility that Cuttin’ Heads rails against. Mellencamp’s voice is split-rail basic, solid, a bit rough, ultimately dependable. It’s what he casts it against that sets apart his gift for the gentle embrace or streetcorner Romeo swagger.

It’s cast perfectly in the carnal trilogy that kicks off with the Don Juan self-pity of "Women Seem," falters through "Worn Out Nervous Condition" – which addresses short-circuited attractions, premature climax and the state of exhaustion from wanting-it-to-work – and closes with the tropical undulations of "Shy." In three songs, Mellencamp tackles every stumbling block men face at the onset of the deeper desire – and creates a CliffsNotes for doubt-resolution that could supplant the self-help section of any bookstore.

"In Our Lives" ties it up, demystifying the rock star as "one of us." Mellencamp’s defiance of the glam life may not find a parallel in our own, but there’s no question he doubts, struggles, rages and wonders at the same things. It may be why – in addition to hooks that have kept him between our ears whether we wanted "Authority Song" or not – many of us are still listening 16 albums later.