There's a famous story about a record company executive — wearing a pink shirt, a crucial detail — dropping in on John Mellencamp's (still going by John Cougar back then) American Fool recording sessions at Cherokee Studios in Hollywood. He was not particularly complimentary about what he was hearing, and when he suggested adding horns, Mellencamp threw him out a side door into an adjacent alley.

Hopefully, he got an ear transplant after that.

American Fool was Mellencamp's career breakthrough, a sensation that topped the Billboard 200, went five-times platinum and launched a pair of career-defining hits: "Hurts So Good," which reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and "Jack & Diane," which made it to No. 1.

These tracks, which also open American Fool, came to define the album, perhaps unfairly. There's no denying they're the very best of the nine cuts (10 on the 2005 reissue), but they obscure the fact that Mellencamp's fifth album was his most consistent and fully realized yet, honing the Midwestern lyrical sincerity and sparse, gritty instrumentation that he'd develop even further on subsequent releases. After a great deal of meandering on its predecessors, American Fool gave listeners their first real glimpse of Mellencamp as both an artist and a man.

Several songs should not be lost in the wake of American Fool's hits — and some should be consigned to the deepest recesses of the Mellencamp vault. Here's how the rest of the blockbuster album stacks up.

The Keepers

Like "Jack & Diane," "Thundering Hearts" paints a vivid picture of life in the land of chili dogs and Tastee Freez, this time in the form of the neighborhood car wash, Ducados cigarettes, Harley Davidson motorcycles and eggs with french fries on the side. It's a crunching rock anthem with a trademark Kenny Aronoff beat and a vocal that evokes the sweaty lust of a hot summer day. When Mellencamp sings, "Forget about heaven, let me stay here forever," you certainly want to join him.

Listen to John Mellencamp's 'Thundering Hearts'

"Hand to Hold On To," American Fool's also-ran third single, is often (and wrongly) dismissed as lightweight. Its offhandedly wise expressions of post-adolescent yearning — of learning lessons without being entirely sure how to apply them — ring true, and coming directly after "Jack & Diane," the song continues the discussion of why you'd want to "hold on to 16 as long as you can."

There's no doubt that some listeners left American Fool before they got to the original album closer "Weakest Moments," perhaps exhausted from all that rocking on the previous eight tracks. But this mellow, acoustic-driven slice of life is evocative and nuanced, the most sophisticated and vivid storytelling on the album and of Mellencamp's career up to that point, and a harbinger of what was to come.

 

The Almosts

A couple of back-to-back chest-thumpers — "Danger List," co-written with guitarist Larry Crane, and "Can You Take It" — are enjoyably dynamic and rocking. The former could have been turned into a country song without much effort, while the latter rides the Rolling Stones/Southern rock divide that Mellencamp straddled so well during much of the '80s, and that would inform the Black Crowes' Shake Your Money Maker eight years later. Both have solid hooks and lyrical insights, so you won't skip them, but they don't rank as first plays either.

Listen to John Mellencamp's 'Danger List'

 

The Never Agains 

The fluffy "China Girl" is the lone track on American Fool boasting outside writer credits, while "Close Enough" is, well, close but rendered flaccid by a hokey chorus and a hackneyed "blood on your hands" metaphor. "American Fool," the title track that did not surface until 23 years later, is a messy melding of reggae and rock, although it introduces some themes that Mellencamp would explore in subsequent releases. Its opening line, "Some people say I'm obnoxious and lazy" would also reappear in "Crumblin' Down," the opening track of Mellencamp's next album, 1983's Uh-Huh.

Listen to John Mellencamp's 'China Girl'

John Mellencamp Albums Ranked

A pre-fab pop singer turned heartland rocker turned rootsy moralist, John Mellencamp has had almost as many career turns as names.