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Music Review: John Mellencamp – Freedom’s Road

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I understand what John Mellencamp was thinking. He options "Our Country" from this album to Chevrolet, knowing that new songs by mid-career guys don't get much airplay these days. Chevy reruns the thing every time they play football on TV. All of a sudden, Mellencamp has a hit — Freedom's Road peaked at No. 5, selling 56,000 CDs in its first week to become his highest charting release since "Scarecrow" went to No. 2 — but Mellencamp also has a problem.

While there's plenty of Mellencamp's rural populism here, the tenor of this record has more to do with that earlier triumph from the fall of '85 than with the commercial's flag-waving jingoism. The marketing screwed up the message. See, a hard-eyed activism threads through Freedom's Road, which takes a welcome moment to ruminate on the issues of forgiveness and tolerance.

MellencampFor instance, on this album's best cut, "Someday," Mellencamp references the verse "blessed are the peacemakers" from the Book of Matthew: "Good fortune will come to those who create peace," Mellencamp surmises, "for those are the ones that will walk in heaven…someday, someday." Such weighty themes can't be hinted at in between one-liners about the Z71 off-road package and GM's patented Vortec V8 engine.

Mellencamp, with his now-familiar passion and accessibility, recognizes that this is a complicated world, and if he doesn't quite solve its mysteries, at least he is honest enough to admit that — and to give it a try. He wants to get there by getting along, battling the veiled racism of the post-Jim Crow landscape and the trumped-up reasons for sending young people into faraway conflict: "You can drop your bombs, you can beat the people senseless, that won't get you anywhere," Mellencamp sings on the title track. "Hide your agenda behind public consensus and say that this world just ain't fair…. You'll never fool us with all your lying and cheating." Mellencamp also offers searing political commentary on "Rodeo Clown," a hidden bonus track.

That's not to say that Mellencamp's lyrics don't sometimes struggle to find purchase on the high ground that he so desperately wants to share with artists like Guthrie, Dylan, and Springsteen. Still, Mellencamp has never sounded more comfortable in relating the uncertainties that exist inside the reliable traditions of Middle America. Also, his garage-band associates display a gritty toughness that lends instant, urgent credibility to the proceedings. They give Mellencamp's first original songs since the transitional, oddly unaffecting 2001's Cuttin' Heads a feel more in keeping with his often brutally honest '03 blues tribute Trouble No More, providing an infrastructure that gives these tunes real heft.

That's best experienced in "Ghost Towns Along the Highway," one of ten songs Mellencamp wrote and produced for this album. It has an open, echoing stillness inside an insistent beat that matches this oh-so lonely lyric: "Our love keeps on movin', to the nearest faraway place…" In this context, "Our Country" sounds less like an anthem and more like a moment of celebration after a lament — like that moment when a jazz funeral goes from sad and solemn to resolutely joyous in the face of such grief. "Small Town," in this way, held the same position as part of 1985's Scarecrow. Both songs, arriving within the context of the larger record, crashed through their own preconceived notions.

In fact, not much about Freedom's Road is what you think it will be. Mellencamp improves upon the musical achievements of earlier triumphs like Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy — and, to me, bests those two CDs because he is willing to be far more emotionally honest with a lyric here. It takes some time to discover that, and he doesn't always get there, but in more than two decades, Mellencamp hasn't attempted a better record.

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