John Mellencamp, "On the Rural Route 7609"

83 Billboard Rating

"On the Rural Route 7609" isn't a boxed set meant to show off how many hits John Mellencamp has. There's no "Small Town" or "Hurts So Good"--most of the big ones aren't here. Instead, this handsomely packaged four-disc, 54-track collection (complete with song-by-song annotation and full lyrics) documents the Indiana rocker's career as ambitious songwriter, insightful societal observer, sharp-tongued sociopolitical commentator and, occasionally, raconteur who's done far more than just R-O-C-K in the USA. Dotted with 14 unreleased tracks (including readings of "Jim Crow" by Cornel West and "The Real Life" by Joanne Woodward), it allows listeners to rediscover such laudable fare as "Jackie Brown," "The Full Catastrophe," "Theo and Weird Henry" and "Rural Route," as well as appreciate Mellencamp's music in fresh contexts. Particularly illuminating is a triplet of the abandoned "Jenny at 16," a precursor of "Jack and Diane," which follows in both demo and finished form. "On the Rural Route 7609" is a deserving and serious-minded overview for one of America's underappreciated titans of song. --Gary Graff