Buffalo News - Mellencamp's America


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.
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