CD Review of Freedom’s Road by John Mellencamp
John Mellencamp: Freedom’s Road
Label
Universal Republic
John Mellencamp:
Freedom’s Road

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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T
he scene: John Mellencamp’s living room, January 2006. Mellencamp and Mike Wanchic, his longtime guitarist and co-producer, are watching CMT and drinking a lot of beer.

Mellencamp: Fuck, man. Every goddamn one of these songs sounds like something off Uh-Huh or Scarecrow.

Wanchic: (Burping) Yeah. I wonder if we could get Rascal Flatts to cover “Pink Houses”?

Mellencamp: It’s like, I mean, 20 years ago, we could have recorded the same song twice, given them two different titles, and had hits with ‘em both.

Wanchic: I think we did do that, yeah.

Mellencamp: And now, man, I can’t get arrested. My last few records have been pretty good, you know - I can’t remember doing a song about a farmer or a small town in at least 15 years. Hell, the last thing I put out was an acoustic album of political protest songs, and nobody bought it. Everyone went crazy when Springsteen did it, though.

Wanchic: Yeah, I bought that Springsteen record. It was pretty good. You can borrow it if you want.

Mellencamp: I’ve messed around with beats, I’ve done the acoustic re-recordings thing, I’ve done the greatest-hits thing…about all that’s left is a live album, I guess. I’ll…hey, is that Jon Bon Jovi on CMT?

Wanchic: (Hiccups, picks up remote, turns up volume)

Mellencamp: Holy shit, does this song suck.

Wanchic: My stomach hurts.

Mellencamp: I have an idea.

The above conversation most likely never took place, but it provides the most soothing explanation for Freedom’s Road, John Mellencamp’s 17th album, and by far his worst since his days as Johnny Cougar. If you own a television or a radio, you’ve no doubt already heard this album’s first single/commercial, the truck-shilling anthem “Our Country,” more times than you ever wanted to, and the rest of the record is a lot like it. If, by some miracle, you haven’t heard the song, just imagine an unfunny, ten-years-too-late parody of what a lot of people thought Mellencamp sounded like in the ‘80s. Stir, add corn, repeat.

It would be cruel to lay all the blame for this at Mellencamp’s feet. In the mid ‘90s, just like most of the rest of us, he got tired of his music, and started tinkering with the formula. For a lot of people, Mellencamp was always sort of like Indiana’s answer to Bryan Adams - constantly threatening to rock, but never quite getting there, and going heavy on the clichés in the process - but in fact, he was more than that. Though probably never a great songwriter, he was, for a long time, very good; better, at least, than his hits might have made you think. His last three albums - 1998’s John Mellencamp, 2001’s Cuttin’ Heads, and 2003’s Trouble No More - were solidly interesting distillations of his gifts as a songwriter and performer, but they cumulatively sold next to nothing, and perhaps as a result, he’s retreated, serving up these hammy, CMT-ready caricatures of his hits. Whether you ever cared about Mellencamp’s music or not, it’s impossible not to listen to couplets like “I’m an American / And I respect your point of view…and I wish you good fortune with whatever you do” without giggling, cringing, or both.

It would certainly be possible to argue that Mellencamp is trying to make a statement here - to heal a divided nation through song, or whatever - but even if that’s true, he’s bitten off more than he can chew. And in any event, it doesn’t feel true; it feels like pandering. If Bon Jovi can score a hit on country radio, then John Mellencamp is certainly well within his rights to do the same. Still, though, Freedom’s Road is disheartening.

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