New York Daily News: John Mellencamp Isn't Afraid To Face Death
07.11.2008 - By Jim Farber
John Mellencamp isn't afraid to face death in his bold and bluesy new CD.
John Mellencamp has mortality on his mind of late. He may have titled his new
CD, "Life, Death, Love and Freedom," but it's the second word that gets the most
emphasis, and draws the most alarm.
"Just put me in a pine box/six feet underground," Mellencamp brays in "If I Die
Sudden." "Don't be callin' no minister/I don't need one around."
In "Don't Need This Body," he talks flagrantly about his "upcoming death," and
proclaims "this getting older ain't for cowards," while in the album's first
track, he sings "Life is short/even in its longest days."
It's not exactly bouncy summer concert fare. But that hasn't stopped Mellencamp
from featuring a clutch of these tough-minded new songs on his current,
otherwise hit-driven tour, which parks at the PNC Bank Arts Center tonight.
"I'm not so sure that one should personalize this album," Mellencamp wrote to
the News in an e-mail. "But definitely at age 56, the youthful bravado that one
once carried has been replaced by a more mature understanding or lack of
understanding of one's life."
Besides, it's not like Mellencamp hasn't come close to this road before. In
2003, he put out a rattling blues CD, "Trouble No More," that had the backwoods
yowl and morbid truth of the form's earliest expressions. The disk didn't sell,
but it scored high creatively. Mellencamp inched back toward the mainstream with
his followup CD, "Freedom Road," even going to the extreme of selling one song
("Our Country") to a car commercial, which earned howls of outrage from some.
As if in reaction, the new CD (out Tuesday) swings back to the blues, but this
time in an even more bold and personal way. Where "Trouble No More" found the
heartland rocker covering the likes of Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson, "Life,
Death ..." features wholly original takes on blues and folk. It boasts the ideal
producer for the task: T-Bone Burnett, the premier roots dial-twister of our
time. He has overseen everything from the "O Brother" soundtrack to the recent
hit collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.
For Mellencamp's CD, Burnett helped craft a raw and splintery sound that makes
full use of the singer's deepening vocal expression. He made sure the listener
can savor every bit of it by releasing the album as a two-disk set, with one
part a DVD that has a sound identical to the original master tapes. It's the
first music released in this form.
The results straddle the harrowing and the beautiful. The melody of the ballad
"Longest Days" may be Mellencamp's most caring, while a song like "If I Die
Sudden" revels in his rougher blues rasp.
The CD isn't entirely devoted to dirges. Several peaks of hope poke through. But
its power comes in its unflinching will to stare into the void - to face fear
with both a cower and a sneer.
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