Written by General Jabbo
John Mellencamp delves into American folk, blues and country on his latest release, the moody Life Death Love and Freedom. Produced by T Bone Burnett, the album’s stark songs of life, death and hard living bare a similarity to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand, also produced by Burnett, but while that album featured all covers (one a Page/Plant song), all 14 tracks on Life… were written by Mellencamp.
From the opening notes of “Longest Days,” you know this isn’t pop fare here. Mellencamp laments life’s struggles when he sings, “Sometimes you get sick and you don’t get better. That’s when life’s short, even in its longest days.” The sparse acoustic guitar backing puts his vocals front and center in a song far too many people can relate to.
The mood picks up on the rocker, “My Sweet Love,” an ode to romance with a ‘50s feel and driving drums. The bluesy “If I Die Sudden” finds Mellencamp wishing to be left in peace should he pass away as he sings, “there ain’t nobody needs to know, that I’m gone.” He delivers the tune with the authority of a 75-year-old bluesman.
He tackles race on “Jena,” a song about the Jena Six trial in Louisiana where six black teens were accused of attempted murder against one white teen by an all-white jury. Racial tolerance is also the subject of “Young Without Lovers,” a menacing blues cut and standout on the CD.
“Troubled Land” harkens back to “Crumblin’ Down” musically with its swampy groove and sings of bringing peace while warning of the hurricane on the horizon. On “A Ride Back Home,” he pleads with Jesus to take him home, saying that his time has come and gone. It is the song of a weary man wishing for the end.
This album is not for the casual John Mellencamp fan. These tracks won’t be burning up the chart anytime soon, but that’s not the point. His take on the old American music largely succeeds. The record is one of the most compelling of his storied career and a rewarding listen.