By Larry Jaffee
John Mellencamp is one of these artists who have always confounded me. On the one hand, I admired the independence he exhibited early in his career, eschewing the major label’s molded image more than 30 years ago of a teen idol for the MTV video age; I like him for staying true to his small town Indiana roots.
On the other hand, even though he could display an artistic stride, such as on “Pink Houses,” his earnestness became irritating, especially when his hit songs like “Small Town” and “Our Country” started showing up in television commercials or be the chosen campaign song for presidential candidates of both parties.
And I’m a dyed-in-the-wool liberal in agreement with his political leanings, not the least being with his co-founding of Farm Aid. It’s easy to overlook that this guy has released about 18 studio albums, and that he was inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame last year. Despite all the posturing about being his own man, inexplicably Mellencamp didn’t fully drop the faux “Cougar” from his name until 1991.
For his latest album on indie label Hear Music, the Starbucks imprint, he thankfully went into unassuming mode. It’s a home run, and probably the best album of his career.
Part of the reason why Life, Death, Love & Freedom works is surely the deft production by T-Bone Burnett. His trademark swampy reverb makes the album sound at times like it was recorded decades ago somewhere in Appalachia by Alan Lomax.
Even though Burnett has produced other artists as well as recorded himself since the early 1980s, he has seemed near omnipresent following his 2000 movie soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? Some critics say that his best recent work was in perfecting the sound molding on Raising Sand from Robert Plant and Allison Krauss.
Burnett selected Life, Death, Love & Freedom to be the first album to used a new mastering process developed by the producer called ΧΟΔΕ (CODE) encoded at 96 kHz, 24 bits, offering high resolution audio playable through any DVD player. Each standard package contains a CD and a second DVD disc with the CODE format at no additional charge. Despite the commercial failure of DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD, it’s nice to see new attempts at serving the audiophile market, and here is one that’s completely value-added, rather than an obvious attempt to take over the market.
But Mellencamp deserves most of the credit because the fact remains he came up with a solid album of 14 songs that never hits a disappointing note. Well-paced between pensive ballads, such as the opener “Longest Days,” and chooglin’ foot-tappers like “My Sweet Love,” Life, Death... is an immensely pleasurable experience that urges you to keep on coming back for repeated listens. More than an hour later, the album winds down as well it starts.
Lyrically, Mellencamp considers his mortality — much like Dylan did with Time Out of Mind — on “If I Die Sudden,” “Don’t Need This Body,” and “A Ride Back Home.” (Ironically, I think it was his lackluster performances of both “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” at the 1992 “BobFest” that began my disenchantment with Mellencamp. Jeez, no one else got to sing two songs, and he wasn’t even a Columbia artist at the time.)
Mellencamp hits several high spots on Life, Death, Love & Freedom, the first being “Troubled Land,” which sounds worthy of Dylan at his best; it’s that good. (And of course, Mellencamp is a better singer than Dylan, but here his voice is raspy which goes with the overall mise en scene, played up on “County Fair.”
Aurally, Mellencamp’s crack band sounds like the perfect marriage between acoustic and electric, unplugged if you will, offering just the right mix of swirling organ and electric guitar fills. Burnett is credited with playing throughout the album, giving us acoustic guitar, bass, electric guitar, six-string bass, and baritone guitar.
Mellencamp again channels Dylan, both lyrically and musically, on “Jena” with a purposeful, mood-setting riff providing the drama (as to suggest “Listen up, this is important stuff”) for the opening line: “An all white jury hides the executioner’s face.”
Listening to Mellencamp’s Life, Death, Love & Freedom instead of his lame 1985 hit single “R.O.C.K. In the U.S.” is like the difference between the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet and their long-player 1988 nadir Steel Wheels.
It’s the rare treat when music and message intertwine seamlessly, as Mellencamp does on “For The Children,” and this line, “Be thankful for what we’ve got.” Who’s going to argue with that?