Life, Death, Love and Freedom

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Article Reviews

Life Death Love and Freedom, John Mellencamp (Hear Music, 2008)

For almost 30 years John Mellencamp has used the foundation of ’60s garage band rock to express the joys and frustrations he’s shared with his southern Indiana neighbors. On this new disc the 56-year-old Mellencamp digs into the substrata of rock foundations—Appalachian ballads and Delta blues—to express some universal sentiments and ask some big questions.

Mellencamp has gained some “adult alternative” radio play with one song from this disc, “My Sweet Love,” that weaves his old tuneful sparkle through an arrangement dominated by a Bo Diddley drum beat. “Jena,” about the racist episode in Louisiana that sparked national outrage, is also typical of Mellencamp’s social engagement. But those tracks are the exceptions here. The real core of the album is found in a series of mournful, ancient-sounding tunes about isolation and mortality drawn with acoustic guitars and violin.

Here are some typical lyrics: “Life is short, even in its longest days”; “I know many, many people, but I ain’t got no friends”; “Here without a purpose, gone without a song.”

“Don’t Need This Body” is so stark and terrifying that, according to Rolling Stone, the singer’s wife and two sons burst into tears upon hearing it. This sequence of tunes culminates with a more cheerful (sounding) track that pleads, “Hey, Jesus, can you give me a ride back home?”

John Mellencamp’s last album, Freedom Road, seemed like a calculated move to recapture a place in the pop mainstream. The first single, “This Is Our Country,” even debuted on TV as a Chevy commercial. It didn’t work. Mellencamp recently admitted to Rolling Stone that the truck commercial “killed Freedom Road.”

This latest album turns in a completely contrary direction. In the same interview Mellencamp said he’s given up on playing rock star. His career is now about “trying not to look silly.” By that standard, Life Death Love and Freedom is an unqualified success.