John Mellencamp: Life Death Love and Freedom

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John Mellencamp: <em>Life Death Love and Freedom</em>

Rock icon gets candid and melancholic on latest

John Mellencamp’s blue-collar rock 'n' roll takes a somber turn on Life Death Love and Freedom, his first album since 2007’s Freedom Road.

What a difference one year can make. Tackling some of the same subjects that fueled Freedom Road’s rousing sound, the fifty-six-year-old Mellencamp now pitches his tent closer to home, writing inward-looking songs that reflect his country’s troubles. “It seems like once upon a time ago,” he sings on the opening track, “I was where I was supposed to be.” The album proceeds accordingly, with Mellencamp singing quiet, rusty-throated declarations like “I know many, many people, but I ain’t got no friends” and “All I got left is a head full of memories and a thought of my upcoming death.”

Perhaps this melancholy seems a bit forced, given the patriotic Chevrolet commercials that helped Mellencamp revisit the Billboard singles charts in late 2006. Yet the songwriter still sounds convincing, while producer T-Bone Burnett churns up an appropriately sparse mix of acoustic guitars, organ and upright bass. Only the neo-rockabilly shuffle of “My Sweet Love” offers up any sort of optimism, and its follow-up track—the ominous, swampy “If I Die Sudden”—quickly squashes those cheery feelings.

Classic songs like “Pink Houses” and “Jack and Diane” once married Mellencamp’s cynical lyrics with big, radio-ready hooks, but Life Death Love and Freedom takes a harsher approach to middle-aged Midwestern life. Blunt and stubbornly engaging, it may be Mellencamp’s most candid effort in years.