John Mellencamp: Human Wheels (PolyGram). SINCE John Mellencamp arrived on the scene with his early '80s tale of ''Jack and Diane, two American kids growing up the best they can'', he has been refining his vision of what is happening in the United States. Mellencamp's look at the plight of the farmer on his follow-up release Scarecrow served notice he was not another poor man's Bruce Springsteen, but a genuinely angry Midwest rock 'n' roller documenting the loss of a way of life. On subsequent albums, Mellencamp expanded his distressing vision to include government, apathy and how despair can affect small-town life, all the while adding more yesteryear fiddles and penny whistles to his no-frills rock. Mellencamp's latest effort, Human Wheels, is his most innovative release and his greatest indictment of American society. Instead of looking at a declining soci-ety as a whole, like he did with farmers and his native Indiana, Mellencamp has taken a cross section of personal cases to vivid ly demonstrate a decline in standards and ambition. ''I earn $200 a week, I'd like to say 'thanks a lot'. I know I'm missing something but I don't know what it is that I don't got,'' sings Mellencamp during Junior, an acoustic number with an edge. Ironies and sarcasm litter his vision, to the extent that nothing, save Jesus and Judgement Day, can save today's lost souls. ''Everything's all right with the family, everything is safe here at home,'' sings Mellencamp during the catchy chorus to Case 795 (The Family). The only catch is that Tom Jones stabbed Alice Jones and on the witness stand his guilt comes from a childhood full of abuse at the mercy of his father. These are Mellencamp's ''human wheels'' that spin round and round in a world where even Jesus is the recipient of a big long laugh. Mellencamp's rant and rock-laced strumming is as distinctive as ever, and on Human Wheels he has added some new elements to keep his trademark fresh. Percussive rhythms are the key this time as Kenny Aronoff has added African drums, congas, rainsticks and metal percussion to his already formidable backbeats. Mandolins, zithers and several soulful background vocals give the impression Mellencamp has been soaking up the atmosphere of Baptist churches in the deep South. Mellencamp's vocals are noticeably restrained to the point of dramatic whispering on several songs. On Human Wheels, the album's catchiest song, Mellencamp also employs vocal echoes to good effect. Musically, Human Wheels is a more advanced version of his late '80s release Big Daddy, but, again, it is Mellencamp's lyrical bleakness which makes the album so powerful. Even love is down and out in Mellencamp's world. During What If I Came Knocking, the first single, everything supposedly works out like a story book dream, but Mellencamp's clincher is to ask ''what if I came crying after just a few weeks and said I misread my heart, this is really not meant to be''. After all the failures, remorse and troubled deceit, the bookend is To The River, a song where Mellencamp triumphantly declares ''I am lost, I am saved. I'm beloved and betrayed. All roads lead to the river''. It is Mellencamp's final irony because ''the deeper I drown, Lord, the higher I'll go''. In a world where actions are not accountable, why not leave a person's final fate to someone else? This seems to be the mindset of today's Human Wheels and Mellencamp has triumphed with a captivating album.