John Cougar’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. Cougar never wrote anything as catchy as this before, nor had his romantic vision of small-town America resonated like it did on “Jack & Diane,” a minor and remarkably affecting sketch of dead-end romance. 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. 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.