John Mellencamp once described his contempt for the dog and pony show of stardom in ''Pop Singer,'' from his 1989 album, Big Daddy: ''Never wanted to have a manager over for dinner/Never wanted to hang out after the show.'' What does he want to do? ''Just want to make it real/Good, bad, or indifferent./That's the that way I live, and the way that I die.''
This, then, is the standard by which to judge Mellencamp's eleventh record, Whenever We Wanted. No, not ''Is the record good, bad, or indifferent?'' as a matter of fact, it's a little of all three but ''Is it real? Is it honest?''
The answer is yes, even though in some ways Whenever We Wanted is a little less deliberately ''real'' than Mellencamp's last two albums, on which his use of fiddle and accordion evoked traditional American music. On Whenever, he returns to the classic guitar-bass-and-drums format of his early years. He's simplified his lyrics as well, no longer writing detailed stories and intimate character studies of small-town life like ''Jack and Diane,'' from 1982's American Fool. There are no Jacks or Dianes on this album; instead, the characters are archetypes We the People and Mellencamp's concerns are political: the gulf war, the upsurge in homelessness, the decaying economy. He's traded the willful bravado of ''Authority Song'' (Uh-Huh) and the attractive romanticism of ''Small Town'' (from Scarecrow) for sheer, unabashed rage.
For example, ''Love and Happiness,'' the first track from the new album, bluntly disparages American military policy from its first lines (''We're droppin' our bombs in the southern hemisphere and people are starving that live right here'') and winds up with an ironic sneer: ''So if you sell arms, or you run dope/You got respect and you got hope.'' It's a harsh assessment, but Mellencamp pulls it off because he conveys such genuine outrage, and the music is so heartfelt: The song sounds real.
So do ''They're So Tough'' (Mellencamp's empathic protest against the faceless minions of authority known to most of us only as ''Them'') and the lighter-hearted ''Again Tonight,'' which closes the album. Elsewhere, however, Mellencamp doesn't quite sustain this level of conviction. ''Now More Than Ever,'' ''Crazy Ones,'' and ''Last Chance'' are all songs whose tired themes life is an unfair crapshoot for a small-town loser, for example and simple chord progressions we've heard on previous records.
Still, what's most notable about Mellencamp's entire repertoire is that his reach has never exceeded his grasp. No one could inject glamour into the distressing state of the nation. To Mellencamp's credit, even though Whenever We Wanted delivers his signature rock & roll punch, he doesn't try to. That Mellencamp still has the courage to make depressing assessments in a pop context is a victory that outweighs the record's other shortcomings. B