Bloomington Herald Times LDL&F Album Review

More ‘Life’ than ‘Death’
John Mellencamp’s new CD resonates with meaning obscured by ‘dark’ early reviews

By Mike Leonard
July 13, 2008

A writer previewing John Mellencamp’s recently-launched summer tour sarcastically noted that his upcoming album, “Life, Death, Love and Freedom,” sounded like quite a bit less than a rollicking good time.

Rolling Stone titled its review, “American Gothic” and, despite the stellar four stars (out of four) rating, the magazine described the music as “dark.”

And in another, otherwise positive review, New York Times reviewer Jon Pareles wrote: “It’s an album presented like a deathbed testament: bleak, solitary, bluesy and unbowed.”

LISTEN: "Life, Death, Love and Freedom" audio preview

All of the above may well be true but it all misses the overall effect. “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” resonates with life and meaning and a richness without equal in the 56-year-old Hall of Famer’s career. Its closest musical relative might be “Trouble No More,” but it’s almost as if Mellencamp assimilated the rootsy, blues vibe from that collection of cover tunes, processed it, and created a deeply human amalgam of country blues and folk that eschews the anthems and arena rock he does so well and presents yet another component to the ever-evolving Bloomington-based singer songwriter.

Working with acclaimed producer T Bone Burnett (“Oh Brother, Where Art Thou,” “Raising Sand” by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss), Mellencamp has created a masterpiece of sorts. As he said many times in the months leading up to the album’s July 15 release: “You’ve never heard an album that sounds like this.”

That’s “no brag, just fact.” You hear the bright notes and chords from acoustic guitars as well as the deep, resonant bass. Electric guitars moan and plead and groan with perfect amounts of reverberation and fuzz. Many songs simply end with the acoustic sustain of a sweet-sounding guitar — as if you have your ear up to the sound hole, listening to that last note fade away. And Troy Kinnett’s organ and melodica work add just enough color and warmth to make the album sound so much more than “stripped down,” another descriptor that is both accurate but inadequate.

Just like the label, dark.

With the exception of the bouncy, Buddy Holly-like radio hit, “My Sweet Love,” the album primarily explores the doubt and despair endemic to the human condition.

“Longest Days” is wise in its rumination that “Life is short, even in its longest days.” “If I Die Sudden” sounds like a classic old blues song in which an iconoclastic, defiant loner sings: “Just put me in a pine box, Six feet underground, Don’t be callin’ no minister, I don’t need one around.”

Several tracks later, we hear Mellencamp sing, “Hey, Jesus, can you give me a ride back home?”

The contrasts are consistent with the ebb and flow of human emotion and the questions sentient beings wrestle with in life. Musically, however, the album is delightfully consistent in that small things are writ large.

It’s no surprise that Mellencamp and Burnett would achieve such a satisfying equilibrium, given Mellencamp’s ear and Burnett’s studio expertise. For those equipped with a home theater system or other means of playing a DVD through a quality sound system, “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” includes both a standard CD and a DVD that employs Burnett’s proprietary Code audio, which ups the ante from 16 bit, 44.1 kilohertz sound to a 24 bit, 96K audio experience that has been likened to what musicians hear in the recording studio.

The listener is not cheated by the CD, however. It’s the same format as everything else on the market, and few people know how to squeeze the most out of CD sound better than Burnett. The DVD is simply a delightful bonus — warm and rich like a fine old vinyl album, with no pops, scratches or other imperfections.

The album also is Mellencamp’s first on the Hear Music label, which was launched by the Starbucks coffeehouse chain and distributed by Concord Music. Hear has quickly established an impressive stable of artists, including, currently, Sonic Youth, Coldplay, Jakob Dylan, Alanis Morissette and a John Coltrane re-release.

Mellencamp’s current tour, with opening act Lucinda Williams, runs through Chicago on July 22 (Charter One Pavilion) and Cincinnati on July 23 (Riverbend Music Center) before several dates out west. Mellencamp’s first tour of Australia and New Zealand will take place in November through early December with Sheryl Crow opening

The release

John Mellencamp’s eagerly anticipated new album, “Life, Death, Love and Freedom,” produced by T Bone Burnett, will be released Tuesday. The two-disc package includes a CD and high quality audio DVD, in a new format developed by Burnett and his team. The Hear Music label is releasing the album on vinyl as well, to address the analog renaissance.
1. “Longest Days” 3:11
2. “My Sweet Love” 3:27
3. “If I Die Sudden” 3:45
4. “Troubled Land” 3:22
5. “Young Without Lovers” 2:49
6. “John Cockers” 3:51
7. “Don’t Need This Body” 3:26
8. “A Ride Back Home” 3:12
9. “Without A Shot” 3:40
10. “Jena” 3:41
11. “Mean” 2:34
12. “County Fair” 3:41
13. “For The Children” 4:35
14. “A Brand New Song” 3:57