New York Times

John Mellencamp, 56, is feeling his age and then some on “Life Death Love and Freedom.” It’s an album presented like a deathbed testament: bleak, solitary, bluesy and unbowed. In “Don’t Need This Body” Mr. Mellencamp sings, “All I got left is a headful of memories/And a thought of my upcoming death,” and that just about sums up the album.

Everywhere he looks he sees shattered expectations and looming sorrow, both in his own future and in the wider world. And where, in decades past, he would shrug off any odds against him and come up grinning, now he strives for simple perseverance. It’s a brave album in the way it sets aside all his old consolations.

His voice is gruff and weary, with a craggy matter-of-factness replacing his old swagger. The album was produced by T Bone Burnett, and it shares the rootsy, spooked tone of Mr. Burnett’s 2007 production “Raising Sand” by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. This album’s most upbeat track, “My Sweet Love,” is rockabilly heard from afar, a love song with a queasy undertow: “It sure would feel good to feel good again,” Mr. Mellencamp sings.

In the new songs he trades his familiar brawny rock for sparser settings, like the bluesy riff and echoes of “If I Die Sudden” and the Celtic-Appalachian modality of “Young Without Lovers.” Mr. Burnett disassembles Mr. Mellencamp’s usual sound, placing his own down-home guitar within the band and, for nearly half the album, devising arrangements without drums. Mr. Mellencamp can still come up with blunt, righteous choruses — like those in “Jena,” a song about racial confrontation in a Louisiana town — but on this CD he underplays them, as if he’s all too aware of every limitation.

Mr. Mellencamp’s tour is due Thursday at the Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, N.Y., and Friday at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. JON PARELES
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