Lexington Herald Leader: Critics Pick: John Mellencamp
Critic's pick: John Mellencamp
By Walter Tunis Contributing Music Critic
Life Death Love and Freedom
The shadows hanging over the pink houses John Mellencamp sang about ages ago
sure have gotten longer.
On Without a Shot, one of the typically stark tunes that T Bone Burnett produced
for the Hoosier rocker's new album Life Death Love and Freedom, such hopeful
Americana bliss has all but evaporated. ”This weary old house can't take it
anymore,“ Mellencamp sings slowly in a cigarette-scarred voice against a
plaintive mandolin melody. ”Rope hanging in the bedroom. That's some of our
Yeah, ain't that America.
Mellencamp has visited these dark rural routes before, especially on last year's
Freedom's Road. But then that was the album that contained Our Country, a
soundtrack tune for a series of truck commercials that was just too jingoistic
in design to make his bleaker takes of hard times in harder lands ring fully
On Life Death Love and Freedom, the disillusionment with the American Dream
offers fewer hiding places. The country revivalism of My Sweet Love, complete
with Little Big Town's Karen Fairchild on harmony vocals and Dane Clark's
simple, rolling drum lines, offer a nice, rootsy party and a modest dose of
sunshine. But to get there, you have to deal first with the most beautifully
deflating album-opening tune Mellencamp has ever cut.
On Longest Days, a drum-less acoustic meditation, the restless, rambunctious
spirit of youth slowly fades into something other than a coming-of-age story.
”You keep on acting the same, but deep down in your soul you know you got no
Burnett's hand in these gray Americana postscripts is everywhere. No sooner does
Mellencamp reach for a shred of Woody Guthrie-style spiritualism on Don't Need
This Body (which he captures rather convincingly) than Burnett's dark electric
twang enters like a swelling thunderstorm. Later, the distortion, reverb and
tremelo ripping through the already disruptive tale of carnies and con artists
in County Fair (”the county fair left quite a mess in the county yard“) is again
So what you have here is an evenly matched team. In one corner is a songsmith
who once topped the charts singing of America's homespun joys but is now prone
to sifting through the wreckage as the Bush years come to a close. In the other
is possibly the most formative Americana producer of our age (rumor has it that
Burnett's next candidate for rootsy reinvention is B.B. King) dressing these
dark songs with even darker guitar fabrics. The resulting sound, which, at
times, strips Mellencamp's band down to a trio, is like a ghostly emancipation.
In short, there are no hits here. No truck commercials. None are intended.
Life Death Love and Freedom, then, differs considerably from Freedom's Road. The
tone, the very stakes of the characters in the songs, are more sobering. But
then what was it that Kris Kristofferson wrote about in Me and Bobby McGee at
the dawn of the '70s? ”Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.“
Here, the inhabitants of Mellencamp's music, with Burnett fanning the flames,
are pushed to that very point. Life Death Love and Freedom might wind up to some
as uneasy or even radical listening. That's too bad. It's his best album in 21
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