Mellencamp has always played to his southern influences. His words said "R.O.C.K", but the music always hinted at "C.O.U.N.T.R.Y". Not enough to really cross over, or to turn away the rock crowd, but rather an infusion into his music that made him stand out. This is particularly prevelent in the album's best track, the hit single "Check It Out". One of the key elements that truly makes the track great is the fiddle that riffs throughout. It serves as a subtly introduction to the guitar solo at the bridge, making a transition that is far more interesting than if it has merely been a guitar track playing instead of the fiddle. Throughout the album, it serves as a complement to the rock guitar and drum patterns, it doesn't overwhelm like it did on so many country tracks of the time. Seemingly simple touches like this are frequently overlooked when talking about Mellencamp, the 80's pop/rock hit maker.
The theme of the album is that of a man looking at the world around him with adult eyes for the first time. "Cherry Bomb" looks at the past with rose colored glasses, and wonders why today can't be like the time when something simple like "holding hands meant something, baby". "Empty Hands" looks at those who go hungry, and wonders why the rest of the world isn't helping them. "Hard Times For An Honest Man" sees the world as in the hands of the greedy...a theme doesn't simply emerge here, it hits the listener in the head. Ordinarily, this would turn off the listener, but it is done in an earnest way...Mellencamp doesn't absolve himself of any guilt in the troubles of the world, he simply asks questions a child might ask when trying to come to grips with the evils around them. He doesn't look down on the world, he brings them with him.
The lyrics go from brilliant ("Check It Out") to eye-rolling ("Hotdogs an Hamburgers"), but it's really the music that is the attraction here. Simple guitar work over Mellencamp's wonderfully southern-toned voice and that ever-present, well-placed fiddle throughout the album make this a unique piece of 80's pop. The fiddle and strategically placed appearances by the harmonica also bring the blues to mind, especially on "Paper In Fire". There is definitely a range to Mellencamp's influences, and this album showcases them all in a singular vision.
Mellencamp has a lot of hits to his name(s). This album may not be the biggest hit machine to his credit, but it is the most musically interesting, and thematically cohesive. To me, the peak is "Check It Out", and that is also my recommendation...if you have enough of an interest in Mellencamp's music to be reading this review, than I would definitely suggest you check this one out.