Sounds Unfamiliar

It’s fall again, and that means the land will soon be littered with new releases from blockbuster artists–and that the pressure to sell records isn’t just intense, it’s inherent. Particularly interesting this year is that three of these acts, two of them seemingly in the autumn of their careers, have flouted expectations by significantly altering their sounds: Suzanne Vega has morphed into an urbane adult popster, John Mellencamp has taken his small-town folk rock to the disco, and Pearl Jam has reined in its hard-rock bluster in favor of Neil-and-Nusrat-inspired introspection.

All three have undergone substantial personal changes since their last records. Vega got married and had a baby, Mellencamp suffered a heart attack, and Pearl Jam tasted the bitterness of backlash. It’s not unusual for an artist’s experience to affect his work, of course, but in each of these cases it seems to have prompted full-fledged artistic reevaluation.

Nine Objects of Desire (A&M) is Vega’s fifth album and her second with Mitchell Froom, who wedded Vega after producing her 1992 effort, 99.9 F°. This isn’t the first time Vega’s remade herself–with 99.9 F° she took a giant dance step away from her folk-rock roots–but it’s arguably her most striking makeover.

Froom’s knack for pinched, bass-heavy grooves has fully wiped away the ineffective politesse of Vega’s folk-rock days. Her wisp of a voice can still only sketch her fragile melodies, but Froom has figured out how to frame them (he obliterated them on 99.9 F°). Enhanced by the cool horns of Dave Douglas and Don Byron, “Caramel” is a sleek modern samba; “Casual Match” rides the insistent throb of two drummers, Jerry Marotta and the Attractions’ Pete Thomas. “No Cheap Thrill” is as radio friendly as they come.

The impact of Vega’s relationship with Froom manifests itself more directly in her subject matter: “Birth-Day (Love Made Real)” ritualizes the physical act of giving birth; “World Before Columbus” indulges in a bit of myopic mother love. Elsewhere, Vega admits to extramarital temptation by potential lovers, both male (“Caramel”) and female (“Stockings”), then resolves not to yield to it. But despite the uncluttered intelligence of her lyrics and the elegance of her melodies, the album doesn’t resonate for long.

Mellencamp, too, has turned to matters of the heart: On Mr. Happy Go Lucky (Mercury), his first record since his 1994 cardiac arrest, ol’ Johnny Cougar peers past the pearly gates and returns preaching “carpe diem.” He always was a bit simplistic, but now he’s George Bailey gone haywire, dispensing such chunks of wisdom as “Life Is Hard,” “live while you can,” and “This May Not Be the End of the World.” In “Jerry,” he chastises a 37-year-old skateboarding dad “who sees the world through a 10-year-old boy’s eyes.” It doesn’t mean much coming from a 44-year-old with the sophistication of a teenager.

His attempts to infuse his tired heartland rock with new stylistic life are even more disappointing. Mellencamp employed Junior Vasquez to tweak his beats, but the dance-music maestro apparently had to be contented with inserting programmed accents into the few-and-far-between chinks in drummer Kenny Aronoff’s rock attack.

The rock attack is exactly what’s missing on most of No Code (Epic), Pearl Jam’s fourth album, and good riddance. Clearly affected by its collaboration with Neil Young (uneven as it was), the band has pulled back, displaying a new depth and focusing on interplay and texture: witness the billowy, polyrhythmic swirl of “Who Are You” (an outgrowth of Eddie Vedder’s collaboration with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on the Dead Man Walking sound track), the Burundian beat that undercuts the largely somber “In My Tree,” and the downright pretty “Around the Bend.” Vedder eschews the tortuous angst-letting of past efforts in favor of more artful meditations on the tough life of rock stars. The gorgeous, Young-influenced “Off He Goes” examines the two faces of celebrity: “But I see his picture / Doesn’t look the same up on the rack.”

Its observations may not be earth-shattering, but No Code is the band’s finest record–though its initial sales look anemic next to Vitalogy’s. While Vega and Mellencamp seem likely to continue receding in importance, Pearl Jam may have finally discovered what’s important.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Suzanne Vega photo by David Selzer; John Mellencamp photo; Pearl Jam photo by Jeff Ament.