South Bend Tribune: Has-beens? No Dylan, Nelson and Mellencamp Remain Creative Forces

By ANDREW S. HUGHES - Tribune Staff Writer

It took less than an hour after The Tribune posted the announcement for the concert July 4 at Coveleski Stadium for a reader to respond that the three headliners are “has-beens.”

Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp are each many things, but unlike most veteran acts, none of them deserves that sobriquet.

As an example, if chart success means anything, Dylan’s “Together Through Life” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s charts after its release on April 28 of this year, as did his 2006 album, “Modern Times.”

Beyond that, and artistically more important, each of them continues to release new albums that add new layers of meaning and vitality to their careers and that demonstrate an ongoing creative inquisitiveness that’s rare — Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and Neil Young all belong with them in this category, too — among most veteran artists today.

Here, then, are reviews of the most recent new recordings by the July 4 headliners:

John Mellencamp

“Life Death Love and Freedom”

Mellencamp feels so good about the songs on 2008’s “Life Death Love and Freedom” that on June 23, he released “Life Death LIVE and Freedom,” an EP of eight songs from the earlier album that he and his band recorded live while road testing them after the band had finished the studio work.

If anything, the live EP eclipses the studio album in the rawness of Mellencamp and his band’s playing and the electricity that live performances — particularly of exciting new material — tend to generate.

Other than that difference, however, “Life Death Love and Freedom” belongs alongside 1985’s “Scarecrow” as Mellencamp’s most meaningful album.

The title of the 2008 album succinctly sums up its content: The Indiana native addresses each of those topics in direct, even harsh, non-sentimental terms.

Mississippi Delta blues, gospel, folk and traditional country music all inform these songs to one degree or another, and Mellencamp’s voice may be rougher in places than it was 20 years ago, but it has conviction and depth.

Love on “Life Death Love and Freedom” no longer presents the wide-open, carefree possibilities that it did for “Jack and Diane”.

Instead, Mellencamp tells his lover that she’s “the girl who ate the apple off the tree” and that he “can’t beg you anymore” on “My Sweet Love.”

On “Without a Shot,” Mellencamp takes on false piety and the country’s willingness to trade its civil rights for false security under the Bush administration; the claustrophobic-sounding “Jena” takes on race relations in the wake of the racial tension in Jena. La., from 2004 to 2007.

Death, in particular, permeates this album.

It opens with “Longest Days” and that song’s simple but powerful refrain: “Life is short even in its longest days.”

Elsewhere on the album, Mellencamp declares he “Don’t Need This Body” and warns younger listeners in that song that “This getting older/Ain’t for cowards.”

He pleads with Jesus to give him “A Ride Back Home” because, he sings, “My time’s come and gone.”

On “If I Die Sudden,” Mellencamp sums up his life and embraces his own mortality:

“I’m not afraid of dying

This life’s been right to me

I got a whole bunch more than I deserve.”

The album ends, however, with a reserved affirmation of life and commitment to the future with “A Brand New Song”:

“Life is always in motion

And there’s new people to count on

Here you may find a purpose

And sing a brand new song.”

Willie Nelson

“Willie and the Wheel”

Nelson may want to be known as the most prolific artist of 2009.

Between February and August of this year, the country music legend will have released three of the most disparate albums of his career.

On February’s “Willie and the Wheel,” Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel reinvent 12 Western swing songs.

Nelson’s voice sounds playful and joyful on such songs as “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None O’ This Jellyroll,” “Fan It” and “Won’t You Ride in My Little Red Wagon,” while the horns and clarinet on “Hesitation Blues” and “Bring It on Down to My House” add a taste of New Orleans swing to the album.

For March’s “Naked” album, Nelson and his longtime harmonica player, Mickey Raphael went back to the original master tapes for 17 songs Nelson recorded in the late 1960s.

At the time, slick arrangements filled with syrupy strings and lush vocal harmonies ruled country music production in Nashville, Tenn., where Nelson had established himself as a hit songwriter but had yet to earn creative freedom or commercial success as a recording artist.

In 2008, Raphael “unproduced” the original master tapes and stripped away the excess of the earlier era.

The results are revelatory. What were once pops songs with a light country touch are now true country songs that point toward Nelson’s recordings in the ’70s.

“The Ghost” and “Happiness Lives Next Door,” in particular, benefit from the “Naked” approach. Before, these songs were pleasant and predictable pop songs; now, Nelson’s unadorned voice gives them a chilling sense of loneliness, and the absence of strings and harmony vocals accents Nelson’s sublime phrasing on these songs.

That said, Nelson brings in a full orchestra for four of the 12 songs on “American Classic,” a follow-up to his 1978 standards album, “Stardust” that will be released Aug. 25.

Here, Nelson covers such classics as “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Ain’t Misbehaving” and “Since I Fell for You,” but these aren’t the typical, schmaltzy renditions these songs usually receive from contemporary pop singers.

Nelson’s rough-hewn voice and classic sense of phrasing prevent that, as do the small combo arrangements for many of the songs.

On even the superficially celebratory “The Nearness of You,” Nelson tinges the song with a weariness that suggests he’s singing about long but satisfying romance rather than a new one, while he and Norah Jones turn “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” into a sparring match between sense and desire.

Bob Dylan

“Together Through Life”

Dylan continues the late-career creative rejuvenation that began with 1997’s “Time Out of Mind” and continued with 2001’s “Love and Theft” and “Modern Times.”

Obviously, “Together Through Life” isn’t Dylan’s best album or even the best of the quartet he’s released since 1997 — “Love and Theft” still holds that honor — but it does fit musically with the Southern blues and folk of his latest two albums.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell joins Dylan’s road band for the album, as does Los Lobos accordionist David Hidalgo, who adds a Cajun sound to the sound Dylan’s pursued this decade.

The accordion, in particular, connects “Together Through Life” with “Love and Theft” by giving many of these songs a playful tone and vitality.

“We’ll keep on lovin’ pretty baby for as long as love will last,” he sings on the opening “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” and on “This Dream of You,” he sings, “All I have, all I know, is this dream of you which keeps me living on.”

Dylan, however, hasn’t gone soft at 68. He names Hell as his wife’s hometown in one song, and on “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” he sings, “Dreams never did work for me, anyway, even when they did come true,” while “It’s All Good” takes a fun, scattershot approach to social commentary that gives Dylan’s obsessive fans good material for discussion.

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