New York Daily News: John Mellencamp Isn't Afraid To Face Death

By Jim Farber

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 "But definitely at age 56, the youthful bravado that one once carried has been replaced by a more mature understanding or lack of understanding of one's life."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 followup 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.

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