American Fool was the sixth, and last, album released by John Cougar. Saddled with the nickname against his will at the onset of his career, he would finally have the musical clout after this album to go back to his given name (although it would take a few more albums before “Cougar” was dropped from his name altogether).
And what was it about this album that gave him such clout? His previous albums hadn’t really hinted at what was to come. Mellencamp’s “first albums were so bereaved of strong material that the lean swagger of American Fool came as a shock. The difference is evident from the opening song, Hurts So Good, a hard, Stonesy rocker with an irresistibly sleazy hook.” STE He’d “never wrote anything as catchy as this before;” STE it “was destined to be a huge hit – ludicrous, powerful, and utterly unforgettable – and has long since gone on to be something of a rock & roll standard.” PK
“But the real revelation on this record was Jack and Diane, a poignant slice of life” PK and “remarkably affecting sketch of dead-end romance” STE Never before “had his romantic vision of small-town America resonated like it did” STE here; this became “a topical vein he would mine with even greater success on later recordings (especially on The Lonesome Jubilee).” PK
Those songs made him a superstar and landed American Fool atop the Billboard album chart for two months and sold 5 million copies. “These two songs are the only true keepers on American Fool, but the rest of the record works better than his previous material because his band is tighter than ever before, making his weaker moments convincing.” STE “Backed by a crisp, powerful, spot-on band that gave a needed sense of urgency to the material, Cougar deservedly wore the mantle of Mainstream Rock King while this record ruled the airwaves.” PK “Besides, songs like Hand to Hold On To and China Girl, for all their faults, do indicate that his sense of craft is improving considerably.” STE
“According to a 1983 article in the Toledo Blade, the song Danger List originated when Mellencamp heard his guitarist Larry Crane playing some chords in a basement rehearsal room. ‘I turned on the tape recorder and sang 30 verses,’ Mellencamp explained. ‘I just made them up. Then I went and weeded out the ones I didn’t like.’” WK