Lehigh Valley/Allentown PA's The Morning Call: On new disc, Mellencamp's a voice for an older, wiser generation

Life Death LIVE and Freedom Review - July 10, 2009 - by John Moser

ROOTS ROCK | It was easy in the mid-1980s to think of John Mellencamp as a poor man’s Bruce Springsteen, singing catchy but not terribly original populist roots rock.

But more than 20 years later, Mellencamp shows on his stunningly good new disc “Life Death LIVE and Freedom” and its companion piece, last year’s “Life Death Love and Freedom,” that he’s far better than we ever gave him credit for.

While it may seem he’s tapped into an easy subject – we baby boomers certainly are obsessed with death, or avoiding it – the truth is that Mellencamp is simply being painfully honest, facing his own demons, which just happen to be the same we’re all facing.

And by doing so he’s creating far more interesting music than not only Springsteen, but the type of music Bob Dylan should be doing.

“Life Death LIVE and Freedom” is a collection of eight songs from the studio album recorded as they were road tested before that record’s release. The difference is that here, the songs sound as if Mellencamp is not just singing them, but living them. His voice is gruff, imperfect and, well, older.

Throughout the disc, Mellencamp is facing death – never moreso than on the opening “If I Die Sudden,” a blues-rooted song with a gunslinger groove that lets you know he’s approaching the grim reaper defiant and gutsy as ever. The song’s authenticity rings loudly when you consider the 57-year-old Mellencamp’s 1994 heart attack.

Also startlingly honest is “Don’t Need This Body,” another bluesy rocker in which he acknowledges his physical limitations (“worn out and washed up for sure”), and frankly tells the listener it’s a struggle to age (“This getting’ older/Hell, it ain’t for cowards”).

But perhaps the song that rings most true is “Longest Days,” on which he addresses not only his position in life, but in his career, as well. “All I got here/Is a rear view mirror/Reflections of where I've been/So you tell yourself/I'll be back up on top some day/But you know there's nothing/Waiting up there for you anyway.” That’s a difficult statement for anyone.

Mellencamp doesn’t only talk about his own woes, but those of the nation, as well, in “Troubled Land” – and boils it down only as someone with years of living could: “We need peace in this troubled land.”

The disc is admittedly depressing, but so frequently, if we’re honest, is life. And Mellencamp at least offers an uplifting turn on the closing “My Sweet Love,” extolling love’s ability to grow stronger as we grow weaker and lift up life when all else is lost.

Each and every song on this disc is a revelation. If, as this generation ages, we still have a musical voice, on this disc it’s John Mellencamp’s.

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