Earlier this year, John McCain used John Mellencamp's hits "Our Country" and "Pink Houses" during stump speeches, until the Democratic singer asked him to stop. It's unlikely that the Republican candidate would find anything useful for his campaign on Life, Death, Love and Freedom. Mellencamp teamed up with producer T Bone Burnett to create a whole new sound — a set of textured, atmospheric folk and country blues that adds up to one of the most compelling albums of Mellencamp's career. There's not a bright, catchy riff or fist-pumping populist anthem to be found among these brooding, low-key songs about growing old, sick, lonely and pessimistic.
Burnett brings a fuzzy moodiness to the gospel hymn "If I Die Sudden" and the Springsteen-like "Don't Need This Body," both underpinned by distorted guitars and reverb-heavy leads. Politically motivated songs like "Jena," about the racially charged Jena 6 trial in Louisiana, and "Young Without Lovers," a more general plea for tolerance, sometimes strain to deliver a Big Message, with lines like "Let the people have the right to be different." But Mellencamp excels at the simple tunes: the twangy "My Sweet Love," kick-started by a big Bo Diddley beat and sweetened with female harmonies, and "A Ride Back Home," his desperate plea to Jesus over spare, ragged guitars. Life's dark undertones may not make for easy listening, but Mellencamp's raspy drawl has only gotten more soulful with age.
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 consolations.
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
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 follow-up 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.
********************************************** John’s newest video “Troubled Land” from his album Life, Death, Love, and Freedom
Searching for a ray of lyrical light in John Mellencamp's latest treatise on the state of the world proves consuming—but largely fruitless. That, however, makes the album all the more compelling. Its unrelentingly bleak landscape, populated by plain-spoken narrators and richly detailed characters and settings, leans more on the death part of the title equation, with pointed side trips into the political climate ("Young Without Lovers," "Troubled Land," "Without a Shot" and the particularly specific "Jena") and philosophical essays like "John Cockers" and "For the Children," in which Mellencamp seems to question his own capacity for the continuing struggle. T Bone Burnett's austere and atmospheric production brings a fresh kind of texture to the performance aspects of Mellencamp's songs, and his bonus DVD mix in the new HD CODE format lives up to its promise for richer and more articulated sound quality.—Gary Graff
By Sean Daly, Times Pop Music Critic
In print: Sunday, July 27, 2008
Album: Life Death Love and Freedom (Hear)
In stores: Now
Why we care: Much like the mystic juju he conjured up for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand, voodoo priest/super-producer T Bone Burnett slathers Mellencamp's new album in the same Southern Gothic swamp stank.
Why we like it: The 14-tracker grooves with resonator geetars, rattling bones and things that go bump in the subconscious. Mellencamp sings about kids getting stabbed at county fairs, politicians spiking the Kool-Aid, old men praying for death. But Burnett often saves John from himself, summoning a dead man's party to go with the so-serious words.
Reminds us of: Jack and Diane as groom and corpse bride.
John Mellencamp delivers a message that many probably don't want to hear, but he's been doing that his entire 30-plus-year career.
The messages in this 14-track disc are often simple, mixed with the perfectly suited music that anchors them, from "life is short, even in its longest days" to "why do so many suffer; oppressed to the end of time; why does freedom move so slowly, unable to speak its mind." Acoustic melodies, mixed with beautiful harmonies with Karen Fairchild, are shown on songs such as "My Sweet Love."
For those who have loved Mellencamp since he was singing about needing a lover who didn't drive him crazy, his latest compilation should touch any generation. Sure, the Indiana rocker mixes words of pessimism, like being stabbed to death in "County Fair" by someone who "I can't remember who he was," but he also offers hope with his raspy, lingering voice in "A Brand New Song."
Thanks for these new songs, John. They'll resonate for a long time.
- Toni Guagenti, The Pilot
Rating: Go get it now
Tracks to download: "Longest Days," "My Sweet Love," "Don't Need This Body"
An album titled Life Death Love and Freedom should be approached with much trepidation, doubly so if said album is by John Mellencamp, who gave up singing little ditties about young, Heartland lovers in favor of large, flag-waving jingles about Chevy trucks. So it’s no great surprise to discover how soberly Mellencamp tackles the big issues raised in the album’s title. (Presumably, he thought Life Death Love Freedom and Taxes would be pushing it.) It is, however, something of a mild shock to find how good this album actually is.
Produced by the ubiquitous T Bone Burnett, the disc is decidedly low-key, with understated guitars and organs complementing the singer’s morbid, reflective lyrics. “Life is short even in its longest days,” Mellencamp intones, and he ain’t kidding. When he’s not staring down the Reaper, Mellencamp proves he’s still a man of the people, as on the topical “Jena” and the jaded but rewarding “My Sweet Love.”
Standout Tracks: “My Sweet Love,” “If I Die Sudden”
********************************************** Life, Death, Love and Freedom Documentary
By MICHAEL McCALL, For The Associated Press Mon Jul 14, 4:42 PM ET
Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame apparently incited John Mellencamp to obsess on mortality. He responds with "Life, Death, Love and Freedom," the most somber album of his 32-year career, offering bass-heavy, rumbling blues and dark-hued acoustic stomps that explore death, relationships and the dark clouds hovering over such ongoing concerns as liberty, equality and peaceful coexistence.
Working for the first time with veteran producer T Bone Burnett, Mellencamp moves away from the anthemic roots-rock and Midwestern soul music he's built his reputation on. Burnett envelops him in the same misty, reverberating twang used so well on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' "Raising Sand." But Mellencamp uses that sound for an album of midnight ramblings that are less playful and more ominous.
The core songs address death directly: "Sometimes you get sick, and you don't get better," he sings in the opening "Longest Days." "If I Die Sudden" features lyrics as blunt as its title, while "A Ride Back Home" asks Jesus to deliver him once he's gone. Another song, "Don't Need This Body," starts with "This getting older ain't for cowards," then bemoans that he and his friends won't be around much longer.
Not everything is so bleak: "A Brand New Song" acknowledges life's difficulties while saying we all must work to find he best in ourselves and others, while "For The Children" is a prayer for a future of less suffering and more humanity — after he's gone, of course.
CHECK THIS OUT: "My Sweet Love," the album's one true upbeat tune, is a paean to the enduring spirit and connection to his wife, photographer and model Elaine Mellencamp, set to a Buddy Holly beat and sung as a duet with Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town.
Jim Abbott | Sentinel Music Critic - July 13, 2008
John Mellencamp is a new member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the singer-songwriter has always possessed a depth that goes beyond rock clichés.
At its core, Life Death Love and Freedom isn't a rock album, no matter how much the frisky "My Sweet Love" shimmies with Buddy Holly style. There's an understated intensity in T Bone Burnett's production that's reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska in the solitary "Longest Days."
At other points, Mellencamp enlists evocative percussion and an assortment of musical toys -- melodica, resonator guitars, accordion -- to add flesh to the album's acoustic structure. As a vocalist, his tenor has aged into a weathered, expressive instrument that wraps itself around plaintive ballads such as "Young Without Lovers" and "John Cockers" like a modern-day bluesman.
On the pseudo-spiritual "Don't Need This Body," Mellencamp sounds as if he's channeling Woody Guthrie, if the folk icon had been accompanied by a haunting distorted guitar. The song doesn't rock, but it's one for the ages.
Despite the expansive title, there’s no room for Jack and Diane, barn-burning dance tunes or Zippo-raising heartland anthems on this dead-serious Life force, one of Mellencamp’s finest efforts to date. Produced by T Bone Burnett, who helped develop its high-definition CODE audio technology, the album winds down a dark, rootsy path of folk, country and haunting blues borrowed from Robert Johnson. In a twangy rasp, Mellencamp reflects with pessimism and regret, but he’s full of fire and purpose, whether offering scrappy prayer A Ride Back Home, brooding hymn If I Die Sudden or the politically charged Jena, based on racial friction sparked by a noose draped from a tree in Louisiana. This time, Mellencamp’s pink houses come with foreclosure signs. — Edna Gundersen
Fresh from induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the plainspoken poet of the heartland continues to prove why he deserves that honor. Whether it's an impeccable turn of phrase or mesmerizing melody, Mellencamp finds plenty of inspiration on this glorious and haunting effort, produced with typically idiosyncratic skill by T Bone Burnett.
Eschewing any concept of "radio ready" and singing with a gruff immediacy, Mellencamp tackles all of the titular concepts on this folk- and blues-based material with a sense of liberation that is keenly palpable. Death, especially, is a popular topic. Mellencamp, 56, approaches it with calm contemplation on the meditative "Longest Days." He prepares for it with curmudgeonly attitude and gratitude on the dark, rumbling "If I Die Sudden" and even longs for it on "A Ride Back Home," in which Jesus serves as kind of a bouncer and celestial taxi service to the pearly gates.
Mostly written in two weeks and recorded in about the same amount of time, these vivid stories tell of people in various stages of living and dying who have learned a thing or two worth passing on. The album also comes with a DVD version, the first release in a new high-quality audio format called CODE, created by Burnett and a team of engineers. It indeed sounds warmer and more present than its CD counterpart. [Sarah Rodman]
John Mellencamp Life, Death, Love and Freedom; out July 15 Whereas once his indignation was trained on factory bosses, now it's Mellencamp's own broken-down self that's got him pissed. Producer T Bone Burnett creates delicate acoustics and puts the singer's disappointment ("Well I used to have some values") center stage. It will not brighten your day, but it's his best in a decade. A-
It’s one of rock’s great ironies that John Mellencamp is known largely as a purveyor of populist anthems in the vein of “Pink Houses,” “Small Town” and the like. Throughout a quarter-century career that hit an early peak with 1985’s “The Lonesome Jubilee” and has stayed remarkably consistent ever since, the former Johnny Cougar’s best work has always been in the dark, American gothic idiom, despite the “everyman” ethos his biggest hits have suggested.
“Life Death Love and Freedom,” out today is Mellencamp’s first record for the forward-looking Hear Music label. It may indeed be the darkest work among a canon that has sought to examine the dark underbelly of the American Dream.
Mellencamp does excel at conjuring rootsy rock tunes with indelible pop choruses — indeed, they’ve made him the most money of any of his songs and are likely responsible for the maintenance of his still-massive popularity. But when the final tally is taken of the man’s work, the Indiana native will be remembered as a chronicler of existential despair, a folk-based stoic whose best work suggests that life’s treasures are fleeting, and only a form of world-weary-but-stubborn “faith in transcendence” makes life worth living.
That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but Mellencamp ingests it with the same voracious appetite that has made him one of rock’s most loyal chain-smokers this side of Keith Richards. Clearly, he expects his audience to do the same. “Life Death Love and Freedom” finds him dishing out knotty complexities by the plateful. It’s easily his strongest album, from a lyrical standpoint at least, since the unjustly overlooked masterpiece “Human Wheels,” released in 1993.
From the point of conception onward, there was no way this disc could lose. Overseen by the estimable hands and ears of T Bone Burnett — on a hot streak following the wonderful Robert Plant/Alison Krauss project “Raising Sand” — the record’s sonic textures masterfully mirror its philosophical concerns. These, as the album’s title suggests, aren’t exactly centered on the standard rock tropes, i. e., girls and good times, etc.
Not since Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” in fact, has an American folk-based rock record offered such a bleak metaphysics.
Springsteen reacted to the onset of the Reagan era by retreating to his New Jersey bedroom and sketching character studies around remorse, poverty, murder, despair, and the bankrupt state of the American Dream. Mellencamp reacts to the tenure of Bush and Co. in an equally visceral nature, digging into the rich tradition of the Southern gothic school, where he excavates a world view in which hopelessness reigns as king, and man is beset by ill-intended forces from both without and within.
The album commences with stark acoustic guitars and a naked Mellencamp vocal intoning a front-porch folk ballad, one recalling his fondness for the Book of Ecclesiastes — which, interestingly, he quoted in the sleeve notes for “The Lonesome Jubilee” 23 years ago. That poetic tradition suggests that human life is a flawed concept — marked by equal portions of joy and tragedy, and over too soon, to boot. (“Nothing lasts forever/And your best efforts don’t always pay/Sometimes you get sick and you don’t get well/That’s when life is short, even in its longest days.”)
The sun never quite peeks through the clouds from there on out.
“If I Die Sudden” is a winning rewrite of the old blues piece “In My Time of Dying,” which Mellencamp covered previously. In it, the narrator insists that no one make a fuss when he kicks the bucket, as “this life’s been right to me/I got a whole bunch more than I deserve.”
“Troubled Land” is a portrait of contemporary America, but unlike Mellencamp’s most recent hit, “Our Country,” it doesn’t beg to be misunderstood as a flag-waver. “Beware of those who want to harm you/and drag you down to a lower game,” the singer warns, but the suggestion that “the truth is coming to bring peace to this troubled land” sounds less like an optimistic platitude than a disgusted clinging-to-belief.
Other songs — “John Cockers” and “A Ride Back Home” — are bleak, but Mellencamp seems to take perverse pleasure in delivering it. One can hear him smiling as he delivers the news, like some weatherbeaten town crier whose only pleasure comes from being able to offer the final “I told you so” to a populace he simultaneously despises and loves. As a half-Irish Romantic type, I laugh along with him, but it’s doubtful the average Mellencamp fan clamoring for “R. O. C. K. in the U. S. A.” will find the humor in this, black as it is.
Musically, “LDL&F” is much more dynamic than one might expect from what has been billed as an acoustic record. It never devolves into the state of torpor that so many low-key affairs centered on tragedy find themselves succumbing to. That has much to do with the way Burnett has chosen to subtly, but colorfully, adorn Mellencamp’s songs with rich, ambient guitars (including the contributions of Mellencamp band members Andy York and Mike Wanchic), warm upright bass, tasteful vocal harmonies and the like. In this world, the Buddy Holly-inspired rocker “My Sweet Love” sounds positively celebratory, even though its lyric is concerned with the ambivalence of enduring romantic entanglement.
“Life Death Love and Freedom” is not likely to win Mellencamp any new fans, so demanding is its presentation, and so unflinchingly despondent is its world view. It is, however, exactly the sort of record Mellencamp should be releasing today, one that consistently plays to his strengths as writer and singer. Like his past masterpieces, its honesty and lack of artifice feel cathartic. This is Mellencamp at his best.
One of America’s original journeyman rockers—a distinction shared with Springsteen, Fogerty and Seger—John Mellencamp begins his affiliation with superstar-laden Hear Music by pulling up roots and returning to the heartland. Of course, Mellencamp’s Everyman attitude has generally reflected homespun values, from the compelling refrain of “Pink Houses” lamenting suburban sprawl to the populist appeal of “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” and the sepia-tinged nostalgia cushioning “Jack and Diane.” But while albums like Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee have found him traversing equally rustic terrain, the lack of commercial concern is especially apparent here.
Consequently, this set of revisionist folk songs is so immersed in authenticity, it could have been spawned in the Mississippi Delta or ripped from Woody Guthrie’s songbook. With the venerable T Bone Burnett behind the boards, the parched, stripped-down settings befit these weathered tales, even as Mellencamp’s coarse vocals echo the weariness and woes the album’s sweeping title implies. The turgid rumination imbued in “Longest Days,” “Young Without Lovers,” “Without a Shot” and “Country Fair” may surprise, and indeed, there’s little evidence of Mellencamp’s radio-ready past … the soulful sway of “Mean” and “Troubled Land” notwithstanding.
A bonus high-definition DVD offers enhanced sound, but ultimately, it’s the unlikely mesh of intimacy and insurgency that affirms Mellencamp’s status as an American original. —LZ
FOR FANS OF:
Bruce Springsteen – Devils and Dust
Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind
Steve Earle – The Mountain
People Magazine Critic's Choice - 7/12/08
3 1/2 out of 4 stars By Chuck Arnold
Having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, John Mellencamp could certainly be forgiven for coasting a bit on the memory of Jack and Diane. Instead, the heartland rocker has released one of his best discs in years. On the stark, stirring meditation on Life, Death, Love, and Freedom, Mellencamp pairs up with Grammy winner producer T Bone Burnett (“Oh Brother Where Art Thou”) who brings a rootsy realness to the music and digs out some of the grittiest vocals ever from the singer. Meanwhile, Karen Fairchild of the country group Little Big Town provides vocals on four songs including first single “My Sweet Love”, a little ditty about down home romance. DOWNLOAD THIS: "Longest Days," a spare, Springsteen-esque ballad.