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Music Review: John Mellencamp – Life, Death, Love, and Freedom

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Life, Death, Love, and Freedom is John Mellencamp's 20th album and due to be release on July 15th. It was described by Mike Wanchic, Mellencamp's long-time guitar player as "…very, very, very, organic." In March 2008 Mellencamp told the Bloomington Herald-Times the album is "The best record I've ever made." As of the writing of this article, Mellencamp is on a four-week tour of the U.S.A., promoting Life, Death, Love, and Freedom.

Life, Death, Love, and Freedom was produced by the Grammy winning songwriter, musician, and producer, T Bone Burnett. His discography covers 14 personal albums, with songs that have been covered by the likes of k.d. lang, Los Lobos, Warren Zevon, Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie, and more. It is Burnett's moody, almost under produced technique that gives Life, Death, Love, and Freedom its down home feel. The same American roots sound that made his Grammy winning "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack so recognizable and work so well.

I can't say that Life, Death, Love, and Freedom is a totally different sound for Mellencamp, but it is a different sound. More depth, more feel, more deep down roots to it that keep digging deeper the more you listen. It has a bluesy, country feel to it that is somewhere between Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson.

In the past you have had the fun Mellencamp and the serious Mellencamp and this is definitely much more of the latter. There are no bright catchy tunes or anthems that will rally the troops. These are much more thoughtful, retrospective, moody songs. Yet at the same time, the tunes will catch you in their own way.

There are some songs, like the distorted sounding "If I Die Sudden" and "Don't Need This Body", which will haunt your mind long after the last waves blend into the atmosphere. There are tracks that have that Mellencamp slow-song feel like "Longest Days," "Mean," and "Troubled Land", that leave you feeling some of the darkness that Mellencamp seems to feel.

There are some that seem to work on their own like "Young Without Lovers," "John Cockers," and "Without a Shot." And there are some that work as plain music like "My Sweet Love", that has the Buddy Holly and the Crickets feel, with a big timpani drums sound and simple guitar work flowing in and out; as well as "A Ride Back Home" with a simple plea to Jesus to help him find his way, which is underscored by vocals and harmonies.

Where would we be without a little political statement from Mellencamp, and there are a lot spread throughout this album. He has always been able to pull off the political song, and by avoiding using contemporary names, he allows it to fit in for generations to come. He is probably the best at this since Dylan; certainly better than anyone in the last 30 years.

Take for example Mellencamp's recent request to the Republican candidate John McCain, to stop using his songs for the McCain political campaign. One of the songs in question was his 1983 hit "Pink Houses," a song that was a slap to the Republican President, and party in general, at the time.

The real political song on this album is the one called "Jena" which rallies around the racially charged Jena Six trial in Louisiana — in which six black teenagers were charged with the beating of white student Justin Barker at Jena High School.

While like any album, there are some songs I like better than others, all stand on their own. I think the darkness of Life, Death, Love, and Freedom, may not play for everyone, and certainly not for every mood. I do feel that that this is John Mellencamp's best album in a decade, and perhaps over time, will prove to be one of the better records that he has given us. When you want that slow moody Mellencamp sound, I highly recommend Life, Death, Love, and Freedom.

Song list for Life, Death, Love, and Freedom.

Longest Days – 3:11

My Sweet Love – 3:27
If I Die Sudden – 3:45
Troubled Land – 3:23
Young Without Lovers – 2:49
John Cockers – 3:51
Don't Need This Body – 3:26
A Ride Back Home – 3:12
Without A Shot – 3:40
Jena – 3:41
Mean – 2:34
County Fair – 3:41
For The Children – 4:36
A Brand New Song – 3:58

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About T. Michael Testi

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  • I’ve had this for about a week now myself and have been holding off writing a review until its sunk in a bit more. The general mood of this record is so dark compared to last year’s more “commercial sounding Mellencamp” record Freedoms Road, that its gonna take me awhile longer to warm up to it I think. Not that I don’t like it (which so far I do quite a bit actually), but more because its just so different sounding.

    It definitely seems to be a record tailor-made for the election season though, and I love how Mellencamp stayed on the fence during the primaries by showing up at rallies for both Hillary and Obama (even as his peers Dylan and Springsteen threw their early support to Obama).

    I’m gonna live with this one a few days longer I think though, and then I’ll submit my own thoughts. In the meantime, your own review was very nicely done.


  • Cindy

    “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” is a record that defines John Mellencamp, bringing in many of his influences, two of whom you mentioned, Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson. John commented in a recent interview he realized there were many more dark songs written than he realized when researching the history of folk and blues songs for his cover record “Trouble No More”, hence the impetus for writing the material that is on this upcoming record.

    A documentary is in the works on taking the viewer through the process of recording this record. Here is a short preview clip posted on YouTube, including interviews with John, TBone Burnett, guitarists Mike Wanchic and Andy York and vocalist Karen Fairchild. If the link doesn’t work, I highly recommend searching for it on YouTube!

    I am a fan, by the way, having been to countless shows, and the arrangements on the songs, both old and new on this upcoming tour, are just stellar!

  • Glen,
    When I first listened to the album, my initial thought was the same; god this is dark, but by the time I hit “If I Die Sudden” it was like I just got it and I was hooked. Some of it was the sound that T-Bone Burnett brought to the mix, but it was also the maturing of Mellencamp himself.

    It is different sounding and I think that is something else that really works for it. While time will tell if it is a commercial success, I think that it will be one of the better respected Mellencamp works and one that will grow on people over time.

    Thanks also for the kind words. Looking forward to your review as well.


  • Cindy,
    Thanks for the comments and the link. I did check it out and found it very interesting and would also recommend it to others as well.

    Reflecting back on my review, I guess what he was trying to accomplish with this album, at least worked with me.

    Thanks again.


  • I can’t wait to hear it.