Life Death Love and Freedom
3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Where do farmers send their children during the summer? John Mellencamp. (Ouch). This summer you might want to send yourself to your nearest music connection and pick up John Mellencamp’s “Life Death, Love and Freedom,” a surprisingly taut mixture of folk, blues and roots rock. This ain’t your daddy’s John Cougar. John boy’s lyrics don’t harp on the boy-girl misgivings that populated his banal material in years past. Nearly every song is an insightful short story of the perils of adulthood; about roads not taken, growing old, facing loneliness or the country’s economic and social decay.
I have to admit Mellencamp is one of those guys I’ve been hearing for years but seldom actually listen to. I had a long fallow period of disinterest in his work that kept me from being an authority on his songs. I wasn’t much of a fan of his early adolescent mid-western incarnation as John Cougar. Whenever he sang “Ew, yeah, life goes on” in “Jack and Diane,” a “little ditty about two kids living in the heartland,” it made me wish a twister would come along and tear through the Bible belt like a corn dog in an old coot with diverticulitis. “I Need A Lover?” Drove me crazy... “Hurts So Good?”… No it didn’t, and “Rain On the Scarecrow”’s anvil-pounding cadence made me wish somebody had stuck Johnny boy in a field for the crows to pick at. Then there was Cougar’s conversion to adulthood (changing his name to John Cougar Mellencamp was the giveaway), and his dubious conversion to a Live-Aid touting folk rocker. But “The Authority Song” had bird-flipping attitude, and “Play Guitar” had spunk; and despite its country pea-picking influence, “Paper In Fire” lit up the airwaves. Johnny boy lurked in the country idiom a little too long for me, hanging his rep on too many fiddle based duds. When he tried to rock, the result was low wattage high school confidential material like “Cherry Bomb.”
When I heard he was putting out “Trouble No More,” an album of folk and blues covers in 2003, I thought Johnny boy was on to something. The first two cuts, Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway” and Son House’s “Death Letter” ripped with slashes of slide guitar, mule-stomping percussion and Mellencamp displaying more locked-in grit than I’d ever heard from him before. The rest of “Trouble No More” however, was a collection of poorly chosen limp novelty songs characterized by Mellencamp’s cheesy cover of Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” (never trust anybody named “Skeeter”), and a very non-revelatory rendition of the traditional folk/gospel yawner “John the Revelator.”
Johnny boy rebounded a bit in my eyes when I heard “Someday,” a cut from his next album, 2007’s “Freedom’s Road.” I’ll stand alongside anyone who points a finger at racial injustice, poverty, and crooked government. Once again, Mellencamp was singing like he meant it: “Drinkin’ our liquor from a paper cup, mean to each other, enough is enough. I look at your face, you look just like me. Hey, brother, I’m not your enemy.”
So I held my breath when I received an advanced copy of “Life, Death, Love and Freedom,” not knowing if good John Mellencamp or bad John Cougar was going to show up.
Life, Love and Freedom
Upon hearing the soft opening chords of “Longest Days,” one has to wonder if the diddy bop country rocker is at home trodding in the hallowed footsteps of Woodie Guthrie. He is. Mellencamp has fashioned a song about youthful dreams that didn’t work out and getting old that’ll score with his fans that’ve aged along with him: “Seems like once upon a time ago, I was where I was supposed to be. My vision was true and my heart was too, there was no end to what I could dream. I walked like a hero to the setting sun, everyone called out my name. Death to me was just a mystery, I was too busy raising Cain.” Mellencamp is smart not to oversell his usual throat-tearing delivery, opting for a tired whisky-throat that gives the song an old school folky sentiment. “Life is short, even in its longest days.”
Gritty delta dirt inhabits “If I Die Sudden,” a modern chain gang blues elegy. Mellencanp employs the fuzzed out guitar backing, upright bass and sneering blues roots approach he used for “Trouble No More.” “If I die sudden, please don’t tell anyone. There ain’t nobody needs to know I’m gone. Just put me in a pine box, six feet underground, and don’t be calling no preacher, I don’t need one around.” It’s threatening blues with attitude, the story of a man who swears he can take it with him, and may he be right.
Being a big fan of “Someday,” I can say right off that despite a less bombastic approach, the gliding, oily B3, and Mellencamp’s croaky vocal, “Troubled Land” is a repeat of “Someday.” Dane Clark slaps down a top-end no-nonsense beat. Mellencamp’s hushed, sandy vocal is a bit of a drawback because it brings to mind Robbie Robertson’s painful attempts at singing, and while Mellencamp’s actual voice would never win him a vocalist of the year award, in this case, holding back this much makes him sound like an amateur impressionist. You don’t need to go hobo on us John to make us realize you’re singing in the third person.
“John Cockers” bounds along on sparse pitty pat drumming as if the percussionist was playing on a cigar box. John boy takes on the personality of Cockers, an isolated, hard-headed loner, singing like a cross between Pigmeat Markham and the local frog-voiced booze hound. Unlike “Trouble Land,” Mellencamp’s altered voice fits the story of a man who has no friends: “Well I used to have some values, now they just make me laugh. I used to think things would work out fine but they never did do that. All those bosses and their rules, it’s hard for me to fit in. Must be ten million people, but I ain’t got no friend.”
“Don’t Need This Body” offers Daniel Lanois-like acoustic voodoo and echoed guitar that raises the hairs on your arms and stirs up pissed-off ghosts. Now Mellencamp takes on the voice of a backwoods dirt farmer (you can tell by his inflection, “myself” becomes “mysef,” and you get phrases like “worn out fer sure”). “Don’t Need This Body” is another song about getting old …but this time accepting it: “Getting older’s not for cowards…This getting’ old’s a lot to go through.”
Hard to make a mandolin sound threatening, but “Without a Shot,” Mellencamp’s nightmarish state of the union address, urges the listener to take stock of our nation’s sagging reputation: “Equality is just a waste of time, now I say this house can be taken without a shot.” “Without a Shot” exposes the shadow the current administration has cast over the heartland – all that’s left is Elmer Gantry’s very dark side.
The majority of the album entertains and enlightens without the use of a drum kit. The drums return for “Jena,” which appears to be a pop song but in reality is an indictment about Jena, Louisiana’s prosecution (some might say persecution) of six black teenagers accused of beating a white teenager. The incident was sparked by white students hanging nooses from a tree as a supposed prank. “Jena” is generally more straightforward musically, but the guitar solo bites like a viper, and Mellencamp still spits out venomous lyrics. “Oh Jena, take your nooses down.”
Rick Nelson collides with the Bo Diddley beat in “My Sweet Love.” Clark goes tom-tom to snare crazy and it takes a while for his Bam Bam Rubble drumming to click with sock hop guitars, giving the rhythm its imprecise shave-and-a-haircut beat. “My Sweet Love” isn’t essential, but it is radio friendly and carries far less intellectual baggage than anything else on the album. No surprise it’s the first single. What will be surprising is if it’s a hit. It’s certainly too nostalgic to ring a bell with the gangsta or Madonna crowd and the lifeless back up vocal by Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town doesn’t help. If I heard “My Sweet Love” without listening to the rest of the album, “Life, Love and Freedom” would die a quick death divorced from my CD player.
One of Mellencamp’s few mistakes in judgment is teaming up with the washed-out Fairchild again for “A Ride Back Home.” Mellencamp briefly rises above Fairchild’s sleepy shadowing, but soon she manages to drag him down to her snoozy level again. The arrangement is polished enough to make it worth hearing even if the fuzzed out guitar and crisp drum whacking don’t match the depression-era lyrics and lifeless Porter Waggoner-Dolly Parton vocalizing.
With “For The Children,” Fairchild completes her trifecta of interference. Fairchild still exhibits all the non-presence of Emmy Lou “Hears a Who” Harris, her meek pipes and unimaginative drone acting as little more than a weak mirror of Mellencamp’s vocal. And for once the fuzzy sustain on the guitar sounds more like a gimmick than a good idea.
Since Mellencamp has presented so many attention-grabbing songs that rely on sparse arrangements or wispy sonic effects, “County Fair” is rather mundane with a plodding beat, and more fuzzed out guitar. The plus side is Johnny’s been working on his lyrical content, filling his palate with tales of grifters, con men, and side show freaks – has he been listening to The Band? This is as much a story set to music as it is a song. But unlike Robertson’s compositions, Mellencamp “County Fair” is a jumbled circus of tornado alley horrors.
Republican Presidential candidate John McCain was using two of Mellencamp’s more jingoistic songs on the campaign trail (“Our Country” and “Pink Houses”) until Johnny put the cease and desist order out, reminding McCain that they were written by a die-hard Democrat. McCain won’t be able to pluck any propaganda from this release, which casts Monkey Boy Bush and his ilk as big business flunkies too busy lining their own pockets to mind the store. For that aspect alone, “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” warrants a lot of replays. This isn’t an album for optimists. Its intricate mysterious are revealed the more the listener digs into Mellencamp’s doomsday lyrics. Mellencamp is light years away from his days as John Cougar. There’s an eeriness about the entire album; he’s the anti-McCartney, his lyrics filled with sharp imagery, finger-pointing accusations, and world-weary lessons learned. He modulates and adjusts his voice to portray his character’s grit, poverty or madness and does so to great effect, something young John Cougar would never think to do. Nice to hear that Johnny boy has finally grown up.