Life, Death, Love and Freedom
John Metzger's #7 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2008, Volume 15, #9
Written by John Metzger
Mon September 15, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
When he highlighted the plight of family-owned farms and the loss of small-town innocence on Scarecrow, his socially and politically charged endeavor from 1985, John Mellencamp instantly obtained more respect as an artist. Since then, he has tried everything to retain his credibility without losing his star-status as an entertainer. This has never been an easy line for anyone to walk, and although he has pieced together an admirable body of work, he also has struggled, at times, to find the proper balance between these approaches. On the one hand, there always have been hints of both Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan lurking within his songs. At the same time, though, there is no denying the fact that Mellencamp occasionally has been sidetracked by his unwavering desire to reach a mainstream audience. Although there have been moments in Mellencamp’s career when he has flirted with greatness, his pop-oriented pursuits also have held him back.
Freedom’s Road, the outing Mellencamp issued just over a year ago, very well may have been the point at which he finally found his direction. After all, at nearly every turn within the endeavor, his commercial aspirations and his creative Muse seemed to be locked in a battle over his future. Frustrated with a lack of attention from radio stations, he did the unthinkable by placing Our Country in the hands of the advertising industry, where its message was, at best, diminished. At worst, it was badly beaten out of shape. As snippets from the song blared during breaks in football games and prime time dramas, Mellencamp received a lot of exposure for his new album, but at what cost did it come?
In spite of its lyrical flaws and Mellencamp’s marketing missteps, Freedom’s Road actually was a remarkably solid outing, though it, once again, demonstrated his strengths as well as his weaknesses. For the most part, his populist musings were bolstered by his Creedence Clearwater Revival-inspired, everyman grooves, but within Rural Route, a haunting memorial for a young girl who was killed near his Indiana home, he reestablished his voice as a singer and a songwriter.
Whatever benefits Mellencamp gleaned from his decision to sell Our Country into slavery matter little now, and with time, the impact of his lapse in judgement will begin to slip away. In the meantime, Mellencamp has been left to ponder his future. Commercial radio seems to have pushed him aside, opting to give attention to his established hits instead of his new material. As he learned first-hand, following an intrusive product placement strategy is a short-term solution that strips away the artistic merit of an album.
In a sense, Mellencamp has been backed into a corner. Forever the fighter, though, he not only has come out swinging, but with Life, Death, Love and Freedom, he has assembled the finest outing of his 34-year career. Considering the ground that he covered on Trouble No More, a collection of folk and blues songs that spanned the generations from Hoagy Carmichael to Lucinda Williams, it ought not to be surprising that he chose to shelve his penchant for pop anthems in favor of arrangements that are more durable, timeless, and resonant. After all, he has leaned in this direction before. Nevertheless, Life, Death, Love and Freedom is the first time that he fully has taken the plunge. The result is a thoughtful singer-songwriter set that holds no commercial pretenses.
Mellencamp could not have chosen a better guide to assist him with reinventing his image than T Bone Burnett. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Mellencamp finally has found a producer who is capable of harnessing his potential and bringing his artistic vision into focus. To his credit, in crafting Life, Death, Love and Freedom, Mellencamp succumbed completely to Burnett’s process. From the gritty blues textures and moody atmospherics that greet If I Die Sudden to the Neil Young-ian tangle of guitar licks that wind through Jena and from the haunted vulnerability of Longest Days to the rumbling, Bo Diddley-derived beat that powers My Sweet Love, there are no sonic embellishments on Life, Death, Love and Freedom that Burnett hadn’t previously applied to outings such as Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand and Sam Phillips’ A Boot and a Shoe. Nevertheless, these accouterments sound stunningly fresh, vibrant, and alive — not to mention downright revelatory — when draped upon Mellencamp’s material.
Much as its title suggests, Life, Death, Love and Freedom revolves around issues of mortality and social justice. Although it expands upon themes that long have been present within Mellencamp’s compositions, there are no attempts, this time, to use bright and shiny anthems to gloss over the problems that America faces, nor are his lyrics filled with the sort of patriotic fervor that previously had tempered his message. Life, Death, Love and Freedom is a politically motivated album, but Mellencamp shifts his perspective just enough to give the sentiments he expresses more weight. Instead of viewing the tale told in Hey Jesus from the outside, for example, he delves deeply into its desperation, making the issues it addresses palpable and real.
Throughout Life, Death, Love and Freedom, Mellencamp is not just worried about his own legacy in the wake of his inevitable demise; he also is nervous about the fate of the country he calls home. Over the course of its 14 tracks, he explores the darkened corners of his life and his surroundings. He not only bears witness to the growing lack of civility, but he also observes the declining moral compass of a once-great nation. Like a man in his final moments of living, he realizes that connection and cooperation provide the keys to survival. When he does finally see the light — in For the Children and A Brand New Song, the final two tracks on Life, Death, Love and Freedom — it takes the shape of providing a guiding force for the next generation. In the end, this may be the last hope this country has of retaining the small town values Mellencamp so cherishes.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box