As an artist, John Mellencamp has come a long way. From his earliest days as Johnny Cougar (the name given him by David Bowie's former manager Tony DeFries), John Mellencamp has most often been dismissed as an artist who, despite the sort of common man concerns expressed in songs like "Jack And Diane" and "Hurts So Good," was just never taken all that seriously.
As much as he may have aspired to the loftier songwriting standards of his peers like Dylan, and especially Springsteen — and as much as those songs may have resonated with the sort of everyday Joes they were so clearly directed towards — from a critical point of view, the former Johnny Cougar was a guy who basically couldn't get himself arrested.
Which is something I'm sure really ate away at the "little bastard" way back then.
But when he finally responded, he did so in a big way. With 1985's Scarecrow, coming as it did on the heels of Springsteen's own big commercial breakthrough on Born In The U.S.A., Mellencamp served notice to the world that as both an artist, and as a great songwriter, he was certainly no mere "cornfed Springsteen," as some of his loudest critics had so long proclaimed.
He also put his money where his lyrics on that album about the plight of the American farmer on that album were, by getting directly involved in Willie Nelson's Farm-Aid benefit concerts. Mellencamp remains a Farm-Aid board member to this day.
Although with that album he did finally gain some long sought after respect, Mellencamp's recorded output since Scarecrow has been spotty at best. For every great, but overlooked record like Human Wheels, there have been just as many missteps like Dance Naked.
Last year's Freedom's Road however, signaled a clear return to both artistic and commercial form. And even though a song like "Our Country" may deliver mixed messages through its widely seen use in those truck commercials, there's no mistaking the message found elsewhere on the album in songs like "Ghost Towns Along The Highway." That the country is in some deep shit rings loud and clear in the songs on that album.
Like we didn't already know, right?
Typical to form, Mellencamp sends mixed messages on Life Death Love & Freedom, which is due out in stores this upcoming Tuesday on the Hear Music label. For starters, there's that association with the Starbucks funded label. Not exactly a way of sticking it to the man for sure.
But I'm willing to cut Mellencamp some slack here.
In an age where traditional music marketing through the usual channels has bitten the dust, an artist like Mellencamp who is most often associated with the classic rock tag has gotta do what he's gotta do to get his songs out there. Rock radio was corrupted long ago, the labels have all been co-opted by corporate shareholders, and outside of the precious few independent avenues remaining, music retail is all but dead.
As I said, ya' gotta do what ya' gotta do, even if it means shaking hands with a new devil.
Looking past that, I've also gotta give Mellencamp his due on where he chose to actually take the new songs found on Life Death Love & Freedom. While last year's Freedom Road was hardly a runaway hit, it still brought Mellencamp the most commercial attention he has seen in a very long time (albeit largely due to those truck ads for the song "Our Country"). It would have been both easy, and commercially prudent, to follow that up with some radio-friendly hits, which I am absolutely sure Mellencamp can still pull out of his songwriter's ass on a moments notice.
Instead, on Life Death Love & Freedom, Mellencamp has stripped the songs down to their barest — and quite frankly, very dark sounding minimum. Although, this isn't quite Mellencamp's Nebraska, the feel here overall is still very stark, folkish and bluesy. The characters who populate the songs here are likewise simple folk in search of something as seemingly universal — yet, nonetheless hard to find — in their everyday lives as just finding a way out. If there is a unifying theme here, it is one that is deeply personal, and cuts right to the bone.
Speaking of the songs themselves, lyrically speaking they are populated by characters searching for redemption anywhere they can find it. Like the guy "handing out scripture like we wrote it ourselves" on "Without A Shot." So, in that respect the landscape found on much of this record is a bleak one, but not one without hope. Most often, the characters here are simply looking for "A Ride Back Home." On this particular song, in a plea to Jesus, the subject even adds "I won't you bother you no more."
On perhaps the album's most widely publicized in advance song, "Jena," Mellencamp doesn't dwell on the specific events of the whole Jena 6 deal, but rather cuts to the core of racism itself in the line, "Jena, take your nooses down."
Just for the record here, not all of the songs on Life Death Love & Freedom feature stripped down arrangements, and in fact many of them are performed full-on by Mellencamp's crack touring band. The current single, "My Sweet Love" (do those even really exist anymore if you're not somebody like Lil Wayne?) for example crackles with a rockabilly feel, set to great gospel backing vocals. Likewise, "Troubled Land" has a nice Dylanesque keyboard riff that punctuates its message of "judgment day closer all the time."
The bottom line is I really like this record. A lot.
And T-Bone Burnett has done one hell of a job in stripping Mellencamp's great new songs down to their barest core in the interest of getting their message — starkly out there as it often is — across.
The deluxe edition is also the first to be recorded using the CODE technology, which is said to capture the warmth of the original recordings like nothing else has since digital became the standard.
I’m not sure I’m ready just yet to buy into the hype about this being Mellencamp’s best since such and such an album. But Life Death Love & Freedom is, at the very least, a pretty great sounding record.