CD Review of Life Death Love and Freedom by John Mellencamp
Recommended if you like
Steve Earle, BoDeans, John Hiatt
Label
Hear Music
John Mellencamp:
Life Death Love and Freedom

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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P
oor John Mellencamp. After correctly noting that Mercury no longer knew how to promote his music, he ankled his longtime label home for greener pastures at Columbia – only to discover that the folks at Sony weren’t any better. The 21st century has seen the erstwhile Johnny Cougar go from radio heavy hitter to label-hopping afterthought; his biggest hit in the last decade, the corn-coated “Our Country,” came courtesy of a series of ubiquitous truck commercials. It’s a shame, because his post-Mercury releases have contained some of the best – or at least most adventurous – music of his career.

His latest release, the T Bone Burnett-produced Life Death Love and Freedom, finds Mellencamp stumbling over another label-derived stumbling block: it marks his debut for Hear Music, the Starbucks-affiliated label that gave Paul McCartney, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell new retail life with rack space on its store shelves. But a funny thing happened on the way to a venti-sized hit – specifically, Starbucks washed its hands of Hear, pawning the label off on the Concord Group, and casting serious doubt on the efficacy of the whole Hear Music business model. (It also doesn’t help that the coffee chain has announced plans to shutter as many as 600 stores; at this rate, it won’t be long before Hear’s artists aren’t any better off than the sad sacks elbowing for space in Best Buy’s dwindling music section.)

Business travails notwithstanding, the Mellencamp/Hear marriage is a curious one – Life Death Love and Freedom bears no relation to the smooth sounds you usually find on Starbucks’ shelves. It’s an ornery, uncompromising record, one that finds Mellencamp at his darkest and most pissed-off, surrounded by typically raw, atmospheric production from Burnett. After taking a detour into FM pop-country territory with last year’s Freedom’s Road, Mellencamp strips it all back here, sometimes relying on little more than his nicotine-stained rasp and an acoustic guitar to get his point across. Musically, it’s a cousin to 2003’s Trouble No More, but not even that album’s spirit of political protest approached the dark depths Mellencamp inhabits here; the album kicks off with “Longest Days,” a ghostly lament about wasted time, and after the Everly Brothers-esque “My Sweet Love,” it doesn’t crack a smile for the next 45 minutes.

John Mellencamp

The grumpy old man pose works well for Mellencamp – which is unsurprising, considering that he christened himself “Little Bastard” a good long while ago – and so does the change in musical direction. Burnett has always been great at crafting a sense of impending doom without overplaying his hand, and that’s exactly what he does here – the guitars snarl and shimmer, the drums are dry and punchy, and Mellencamp’s vocals are soaked in piss and vinegar. It’s miles removed from Norah Jones territory, in other words, and not exactly the type of album you’d think would go well with a five-dollar cup of coffee, but it’s one of Mellencamp’s best albums.

It’s also one of his least commercial, and not just because of the sparse production. The social conscience that fueled Trouble No More is on full display here – tracks like “For the Children” and “A Brand New Song” are weighted down with the pessimism of a man who has seen better days and believes we’re headed in the wrong direction as a society, and with “Jena,” Mellencamp tears his inspiration directly from the headlines. He’s no Dylan, but this unflinching, death-obsessed collection might just be Mellencamp’s Time Out of Mind. His views – particularly on “Jena” – will rankle some of the red-state faithful who drained their beers to “Pink Houses,” but it’s hard to imagine Mellencamp caring much. Authority might always win, but he’s still fighting.

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