The Record (Stockton CA) Album Review: “Mellencamp Continues To Speak For The People”

Mellencamp continues to speak for the people

By Tony Sauro
Record Staff Writer
July 31, 2008 6:00 AM
John Mellencamp makes his ambitions obvious with the title of his new album: "Life Death Love and Freedom."

It's not as presumptuous as it sounds.

The 56-year-old native of Seymour, Ind., who became a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 10, continues to voice the hopes, fears and disappointments of regular folks living regular lives - often in quiet desperation and emotional isolation - during a distressing time for many working-class Americans.

Mellencamp's 20th studio album, it follows up on 2007's self-produced "Freedom's Road" (without a Chevy truck commercial, that is) with its mostly barebones, traditionalist sound. There aren't any obvious arena-rock anthems here.

T Bone Burnett, known for his rootsy, organic approach, was a natural choice as producer - placing Mellencamp's songs in unadorned frames that accentuate their earthy essence. It's a patented Burnett soundscape, built around acoustic styles (folk, blues, country) with tasty keyboard inflections and raw, twangy electric guitar riffs.

Though he's a wealthy rock star, Mellencamp still demonstrates a believable empathy for middle-class Middle Americans. That's how he grew up.

Known for being a blunt and outspoken populist, he expresses his political and philosophical dismay while confronting the fragility of relationships and the inevitable specter of aging and mortality (the skeletal "Don't Need This Body," bluesy "If I Die Sudden" and desperate "A Ride Back Home," a country-rock duet with Karen Fairchild). His cast of characters ranges from a loner who doesn't "accommodate nobody" (the low-boil ballad "John Cockers") to the cautionary tale of a murder victim (the agitated "County Fair").

His anger and regret are obvious on "Without a Shot," a barren ballad triggered by the erosion of liberty's idealism during the "war on terror," and "Jena," a sad, shuffling ballad with a martial drumbeat and anguished electric guitar that's a mournful reflection on the 2007 racist "noose" incident in Jena, La.

Despite the general darkness, though, Mellencamp concludes the 14-song album with some stubborn hope: "Life is always in motion/New people to count on/Here we find a purpose/To sing a brand new song."

The 48:38 CD is complemented by a DVD version described as the first release recorded on a "high-definition audio" system (CODE) developed by Burnett and engineer Mike Piersante.

Mellencamp performs Saturday at UC Berkeley's Greek Theatre. Lucinda Williams opens
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