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