Lexington Herald Leader: Critics Pick: John Mellencamp

Critic's pick: John Mellencamp
By Walter Tunis Contributing Music Critic

John Mellencamp
Life Death Love and Freedom

The shadows hanging over the pink houses John Mellencamp sang about ages ago sure have gotten longer.

On Without a Shot, one of the typically stark tunes that T Bone Burnett produced for the Hoosier rocker's new album Life Death Love and Freedom, such hopeful Americana bliss has all but evaporated. ”This weary old house can't take it anymore,“ Mellencamp sings slowly in a cigarette-scarred voice against a plaintive mandolin melody. ”Rope hanging in the bedroom. That's some of our dirty work.“

Yeah, ain't that America.

Mellencamp has visited these dark rural routes before, especially on last year's Freedom's Road. But then that was the album that contained Our Country, a soundtrack tune for a series of truck commercials that was just too jingoistic in design to make his bleaker takes of hard times in harder lands ring fully true.

On Life Death Love and Freedom, the disillusionment with the American Dream offers fewer hiding places. The country revivalism of My Sweet Love, complete with Little Big Town's Karen Fairchild on harmony vocals and Dane Clark's simple, rolling drum lines, offer a nice, rootsy party and a modest dose of sunshine. But to get there, you have to deal first with the most beautifully deflating album-opening tune Mellencamp has ever cut.

On Longest Days, a drum-less acoustic meditation, the restless, rambunctious spirit of youth slowly fades into something other than a coming-of-age story. ”You keep on acting the same, but deep down in your soul you know you got no flame.“

Burnett's hand in these gray Americana postscripts is everywhere. No sooner does Mellencamp reach for a shred of Woody Guthrie-style spiritualism on Don't Need This Body (which he captures rather convincingly) than Burnett's dark electric twang enters like a swelling thunderstorm. Later, the distortion, reverb and tremelo ripping through the already disruptive tale of carnies and con artists in County Fair (”the county fair left quite a mess in the county yard“) is again Burnett's handiwork.

So what you have here is an evenly matched team. In one corner is a songsmith who once topped the charts singing of America's homespun joys but is now prone to sifting through the wreckage as the Bush years come to a close. In the other is possibly the most formative Americana producer of our age (rumor has it that Burnett's next candidate for rootsy ­reinvention is B.B. King) dressing these dark songs with even darker guitar fabrics. The resulting sound, which, at times, strips Mellencamp's band down to a trio, is like a ghostly emancipation. In short, there are no hits here. No truck commercials. None are intended.

Life Death Love and Freedom, then, differs considerably from Freedom's Road. The tone, the very stakes of the characters in the songs, are more sobering. But then what was it that Kris Kristofferson wrote about in Me and Bobby McGee at the dawn of the '70s? ”Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.“

Here, the inhabitants of Mellencamp's music, with Burnett fanning the flames, are pushed to that very point. Life Death Love and Freedom might wind up to some as uneasy or even radical listening. That's too bad. It's his best album in 21 years.

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