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John Mellencamp

Cuttin' Heads (Columbia)

If that heart attack several years back wasn't proof that the Hoosier half-pint is running out of steam, this CD is. Clocking in at just over forty minutes, Heads suffers from a navel-gazing focus that a successful 53-year-old artist such as Mellencamp should have outgrown by now. Usually at his best delivering insights through the eyes and mouths of other characters, Mellencamp abandons -- as has been his trend of late -- the engaging narratives that brought him his greatest acclaim. Instead, he addresses his audience in the first person, as though his '80s track record had earned him this indulgence.

The results include listenable but half-baked numbers such as the semi-swaggering melting-pot ode "Crazy Island." Unfortunately, the singer has made the same point on a half a dozen previous -- and better -- tunes. Equally unsatisfying are "Just Like You" and the dirge-like "The Same Way I Do," which never develop reasons for the singer's elation and angst, respectively. Similarly, not even a Trisha Yearwood cameo can save the self-pitying "Deep Blue Heart." Worse is the overly confessional "Shy," which practically begs to become background music for the next Bob Dole Viagra ad. The fan favorite "Women Seem," on the other hand, a supposedly humorous take on male-female relations, suffers from barely concealed bitterness. (Sample lines: "Women sure can hurt your feelings/They can burn you down and not make a sound.")

Far stronger are the selections wherein Mellencamp delivers songs rather than journal entries. These include the title track, a truck-stop R&B workout featuring a Chuck D rap against the commercialization of the N-word, and "Peaceful World," a tuneful duet with India.Arie that sways as gracefully as an Indiana cornfield in the breeze. The latter cut also showcases an understated near-rap by Mellencamp that sounds better than you might think.

With Cuttin' Heads, the former Johnny Cougar's style -- full of gravel-throated observations atop plenty of fiddles and folk-rock fillips -- remains more or less intact. He's even learned a few rhythmic tricks in his old age. You just wish he'd turn his talents toward the world around him rather than focus on his apparent lack of nookie.

 
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