New York Times
07.07.2008 - John Mellencamp, 56, is feeling his age and then some on “Life Death Love and
Freedom.” It’s an album presented like a deathbed testament: bleak, solitary,
bluesy and unbowed. In “Don’t Need This Body” Mr. Mellencamp sings, “All I got
left is a headful of memories/And a thought of my upcoming death,” and that just
about sums up the album.
Everywhere he looks he sees shattered expectations and looming sorrow, both in
his own future and in the wider world. And where, in decades past, he would
shrug off any odds against him and come up grinning, now he strives for simple
perseverance. It’s a brave album in the way it sets aside all his old
His voice is gruff and weary, with a craggy matter-of-factness replacing his old
swagger. The album was produced by T Bone Burnett, and it shares the rootsy,
spooked tone of Mr. Burnett’s 2007 production “Raising Sand” by Robert Plant and
Alison Krauss. This album’s most upbeat track, “My Sweet Love,” is rockabilly
heard from afar, a love song with a queasy undertow: “It sure would feel good to
feel good again,” Mr. Mellencamp sings.
In the new songs he trades his familiar brawny rock for sparser settings, like
the bluesy riff and echoes of “If I Die Sudden” and the Celtic-Appalachian
modality of “Young Without Lovers.” Mr. Burnett disassembles Mr. Mellencamp’s
usual sound, placing his own down-home guitar within the band and, for nearly
half the album, devising arrangements without drums. Mr. Mellencamp can still
come up with blunt, righteous choruses — like those in “Jena,” a song about
racial confrontation in a Louisiana town — but on this CD he underplays them, as
if he’s all too aware of every limitation.
Mr. Mellencamp’s tour is due Thursday at the Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh,
N.Y., and Friday at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. JON PARELES
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