Life Death Love And Freedom

John Mellencamp

Hear Music, 2008

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/15/2008

I spend entirely too much time at Starbucks, which is why I’ve seen John Mellencamp’s stoic face on the cover of his latest album upwards of fifty times since it was released in July with the coffeehouse’s Hear Music label. Of course, this would be way more of an annoyance if this disc, his eighteenth, wasn’t the compelling, hauntingly soulful collection that it is, which Mellencamp himself has characterized as “modern eclectic folk songs.” Life, Death, Love, And Freedom is bleak and lonely throughout as it covers his own passing and the loss of America’s moral vision -- it’s a tough listen, to be sure, but Mellencamp weathered, raspy drawl is familiar and evocative, while the accompanying instrumentation is sparsely graceful, courtesy of T Bone Burnett helming the album’s production.

Of the four themes – love, death, life, and freedom – death is featured the most prominently here.  Save for the rollicking ‘50s-esque feel of leadoff single “My Sweet Love” with its twangy guitars and driving drums, the rest of the material is resoundingly disquieting. Opener “Longest Days” finds itself accented with little more than light guitar plucking, letting Mellencamp’s weary, weighted-down vocals shine on lines like “So you tell yourself / I’ll be back on top someday / But you know there’s nothing / Waiting up there for you anyway,” while “If I Die Sudden”  and “Don’t Need This Body” are starkly dark stunners. The buzz of heavily distorted guitars backs these tracks, and the gospel hymn feel lends both a plain-spoken realism rather than sinking too far deep into pessimism.bim_ad_daily_vault_print_250

Mellencamp takes on an increasingly convoluted America most pointedly with “Troubled Land,” which pairs his muted, gruff vocals with a thick, winding groove and sharply-penned lyrics (“The eyes of heaven are upon you / But so is the soul from down below / They’ll cut off your fingers / To bring peace to this troubled land”) that sound eerily prophetic. “Without A Shot” echoes this foreboding, warning against a people devouring itself from the inside out all in the name of freedom, the accompanying organ and mandolin providing an appropriate Gothic moodiness here. “Jena,” meanwhile, tackles the now-infamous Jena Six trial in Louisiana (in which six black teens were charged with the beating of one white teenager by an all-white jury) with a cool bluntness that is reinforced by the crisp drums, not to mention a surprisingly melodic guitar break.

Occasionally, amid all the razor-sharp cuts, there are some moments of hope and grace. Closer “A Brand New Song” seems the antidote to the detachment of “Young Without Lovers,” its almost sweetly buoyant instrumentation coupling well with Mellencamp own rising, purposeful vocals as he finally proclaims, “Life is always in motion / New people to count on / Here we find a purpose / To sing a brand new song.”

Life, Death, Love, And Freedom is a relentless, aching, yet ultimately brave album, one wholly unconcerned with chart positions or radio airplay. Instead, Mellencamp has crafted a rare, unflinching portrait of himself and the world around him, for better or for worse.

Rating: B+

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© 2008 Melanie Love and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Hear Music, and is used for informational purposes only.