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‘Dance Naked’: John Mellencamp Returns To Rock ‘N’ Roll

The album features ‘Wild Night,’ the hit collaboration with Me’Shell Ndegocello.

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Cover: Courtesy of Mercury Records

By the early 1990s, John Mellencamp had transformed from a scruffy young rocker into a rootsy troubadour, a champion of the working man, and a wizened sage of Americana. But with 1994’s Dance Naked, he temporarily put all that aside, got young and scruffy again, and went back to his first love: guitar-driven rock ‘n roll.

Dance Naked completes a rocking trilogy that included 1991’s Whenever We Wanted and 1992’s Human Wheels. True to its title, it’s a raw and naked album, with most tracks sporting stripped-down arrangements and first-take spontaneity. For the first and only time, none of the songs hit four minutes – and, at barely a half-hour, the album goes by so fast that you’ve just got to play it again.

Listen to John Mellencamp’s Dance Naked now.

The magic ingredient of Dance Naked is a little thing called fun. Every song hits you right away with a tasty guitar lick or a between-the-eyes chorus hook, whether it’s the big and anthemic “The Breakout” or the soulful strut of “L.U.V.” You’ve seldom heard Mellencamp get so loose as on the title track, which jumps from wide-eyed romance to pure lust and back again. Or on “Brothers,” which sports a Byrdsy 12-string and a playfully cranky sense of humor, telling of two brothers who are about as close as Cain and Abel.

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The big surprise was Van Morrison’s celebratory “Wild Night,” one of a small handful of cover tunes Mellencamp had recorded to that point. As he explained at the time, there was no grand design there: He was a fan of Me’Shell Ndegocello and wanted her to join him in the studio. They decided to loosen up on the first day with a song they both liked. He doesn’t change the feel of the song much, though he does replace Morrison’s horns with a wall of guitars. But the vocal tradeoffs with Ndegocello are the real kicker, making it far sexier than Van’s original. It was also a Top Ten single.

John Mellencamp - Wild Night ft. Me'Shell Ndegeocello

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Ndgeocello also appears on “The Big Jack,” where the tempo slows down and things get a tad more serious, but no less romantic. It’s addressed to a lady who yearns for the ultimate kick and suggests true love might be the answer. Mellencamp’s social conscience comes into play on the one acoustic track, “Another Sunny Day 12/25,” a Christmas song with a difference: It never actually mentions the holiday, but looks at a troubled world and promises never “to sow those seeds of despair.”

Mellencamp’s back-to-rock period would come to a sudden halt after a life-threatening heart attack during the Dance Naked tour. This experience informed his next album, the darkly surreal Mr. Happy Go Lucky, and mortality would raise its head in many songs to come. So Dance Naked wasn’t the last time he ever rocked out, but it’s not often that he’d have such an obvious blast doing it.

Listen to John Mellencamp’s Dance Naked now.

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