John Mellencamp begins his latest album, Life Death Love and Freedom by giving a brutally frank assessment of his life and livelihood. Looking back over his long career, he can’t help but long for more successful days. “It seems like once upon a time ago,” he laments, “I was where I was supposed to be… I walked like a hero into the setting sun / Everyone called out my name.” Later in the song he admits to lying to himself, only to accept a painful reality: “So you tell yourself I’ll be back on top some day / But you know there’s nothing waiting up there / For you anyway.”
This is certainly a different tact than Mellencamp took with the release of his last album, 2007’s Freedom’s Road. If you recall, that album’s first single, “Our Country”, was featured in a series of Chevy ads that shamelessly pillaged the American mythos to sell automobiles. It was all part of a failed attempt to resurrect the slumping automaker’s sales—as well as the slumping state of Mellencamp’s career. For sure, the song had a lot going for it: chiming Byrds’ guitar, fist-pumping patriotism, and an undeniably catchy chorus. If Mellencamp wasn’t aiming for the bleachers, Chevy wasn’t trying to make money.
But flash forward a year, and Mellencamp is over hit singles. Not only has he realized that the pop charts are so fickle that “there’s nothing waiting for [him] anyway”, he’s also realized that there’s more important stuff to be concerned with than pop success. There are no deals with corporate devils here, nor are there any songs that sound like they were crafted with airplay in mind. Instead, there are just fourteen solid songs that share the themes of, well, life, death, love, and freedom.
Of these four themes (which are inextricably linked throughout the album) death seems the most prominent on Mellencamp’s mind. With song titles like “If I Die Sudden” and “Don’t Need This Body”, it’s obvious that he’s feeling the effects of age and pondering that unsettling, inescapable fate. “All my friends are / Sick or dyin / And I’m here all by myself” he seethes in the latter song, while the lumbering notes of an upright bass stalk his voice like mortality itself. Roughly the same age as Dylan when he recorded the similarly-preoccupied-with-death Time Out of Mind, Mellencamp no doubt feels the menacing stare of death off in the distance, and it has caused him to reassess not only his life, but also his art.
Mellencamp, however, isn’t just concerned with his own passing, he’s also concerned with the passing of a nation he has so thoroughly chronicled the last three decades. Tracks like “Without a Shot”, “Troubled Land”, and “Jena” portray an America that has lost track of its moral vision, one where people are so consumed by dogma and fear that they’ve isolated themselves. By album’s end, the only revelation more disturbing than the good ol’ days may have passed for good is that perhaps, in light of such a tragedy, reaching the end of one’s life may not be so bad.
All of this may sound rather depressing or whiney, and it would be if not for the fact that the music is perfectly suited to the themes. If Mellencamp were complaining about the state of the nation over punk chord progressions, he would sound like just another bratty pop singer who doesn’t realize what a great deal he has living in the U.S.A. This is a folk-blues album, though, and the music is often spare and eerie, lending a prophetic air to Mellencamp’s visions. “Without a Shot”, for example, warns of what can happen when a people become so obsessed with protecting their freedom they willingly surrender it. As Mellencamps sings about the “saluting of ourselves”, a foreboding organ groans underneath his voice, occasionally interrupted by a gothic mandolin motif.
And that’s why this album succeeds, despite its relentlessly bleak outlook. The music comes straight from the collective unconscious of the American people, imbuing the songs with a timeless mystique. Mellencamp has adopted the persona of an old bluesman here and rather than sounding pessimistic, he sounds frighteningly realistic, like someone who has seen enough to know when the deal has gone sour. Much of the credit must go to T-Bone Burnett, whose production knows when to get out of the way and let the music breathe. Together, the music and production create the perfect atmosphere for the lyrics, underscoring all the right moments, no matter how disquieting they may be.
No, Life Death Love and Freedom isn’t uplifting stuff, but the job of art is to provoke thought, even when those thoughts are hard to face. And make no mistake, Life Death Love and Freedom is a serious work of art. Mellencamp may not have chart hits in his future, but if he keeps making albums like this, he’ll have something better—an enduring musical legacy of true artistic merit.