Two years ago fans got the feeling that their favorite heartland rocker might have lost his way when Mellencamp, 47, released an album of urban dance music produced by club-deejay Junior Vasquez and rife with prerecorded drum tracks. But if he was suffering a midlife crisis, it's over now. On this, his 15th album—and first for Columbia, after leaving his longtime label Mercury—Mellencamp returns to basics. While hip-hopster Moe Z. MD contributes vocals and dance beats to a funky track titled "Break Me Off Some," the Indiana native stays close to the chunky, gospel-inflected rock that enlivened his 1987 hit "Paper in Fire." And with Miriam Sturm's gypsy fiddle giving tracks an epic feel, and roots-rock guests (including former Guns N' Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin) assisting his regular backing band, Mellencamp seems reenergized. He's even relaxed enough to resurrect a pair of characters he buried with his old John Cougar persona: The protagonists of his 1982 hit "Jack & Diane" make a cameo in "Eden is Burning."
Bottom Line: Meat-and-potatoes rock, with just a pinch of '90s garnish, gets Mellencamp back on track