After wasting a decade and a half trying to remain popular, John Mellencamp finally figures out he's much better remaining populist.
If you've been anywhere within earshot of a television the last few months, you're probably already sick of John Mellencamp's "Our Country", the first single off his latest album, Freedom's Road. In a classic ad populum appeal to convince patriotic but naïve Americans to buy their automobiles, Chevrolet built an entire ad campaign around the song, exploiting everything great about America in the process, from the blue-collar work ethic to family to democracy to Martin Luther King, Jr. It was disgusting and shameless, but when American titans like Ford Motor Company post yearly losses in excess of $12.7 BILLION (with a B, folks), it's understandable. After all, if Martin Luther King, Jr. can have a dream, why can't Chevy?
But while the Chevy campaign revealed a lot about the shaky state of American companies, it revealed even more about the shaky state of the music industry. Mellencamp, after all, has a long history of condemning the practice of licensing songs to corporations, citing the usual argument that doing so sullies a song’s artistic integrity. With album sales seemingly in a permanent downfall, however, he had a change of heart. In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, Mellencamp asserts that "times have changed", and he points to Tom Petty's last album, the amazing Highway Companion, as a perfect example of why. "Nobody played the fucking record," he says in Rolling Stone, and the fact that such a gem could go ignored was enough to get Mellencamp talking to Chevy. He shouldn't feel ashamed, though, for working with corporate America. When you listen to Freedom's Road in its entirety, you'll understand why Mellencamp was so anxious to have it heard by as wide an audience as possible; it is, quite simply, his best album in a decade and a half.
For good or bad, Mellencamp is still remembered best for his early '80s work, when he scored hits with "Hurt So Good", "Jack and Diane", "Pink Houses", "The Authority Song", and other such depictions of Americana. By the time the '90s arrived, however, he seemed dated, and perhaps that's why he responded to the inevitable pressure to remain relevant by flirting with dance beats and adult contemporary schlock. Yeah... that didn't go so well, and even he concedes that he didn't put forth his best effort for over a decade. Maybe because trying to remain "relevant" wasn't a success, Mellencamp decided to return to his populist roots on Freedom's Road, and he's realized that tales of authentic American lives sound best when combined with authentic American music. No, there's no "Key West Intermezzo" here -- though, come on, that was pretty good, even if it was slightly misguided.
Mellencamp, though, doesn't just return to what's become known as "roots rock" here. That term has become so watered down that any latte-sipping folkie who dares to growl as well as croon has been labeled as such. Conversely, Freedom's Road is true roots rock, harkening back to the glory days of rock when bands were simultaneously paving the way for the future while channeling the ghosts of the past. Bob Dylan once lamented that today’s artists don’t know anything about their musical heritage, and Mellencamp seems to agree. All you have to do is listen to the first 30 seconds of album opener "Someday" to realize that Mellencamp is feeling nostalgic: the opening guitar notes ring like Roger McGuinn, the thick ambiance feels like the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun", the groove is lifted from the blues, and the backup vocals are classic R&B. That just might be everything you need to know about rock 'n' roll right there.
Indeed, Freedom's Road is a concise tour of rock's past. Rather than trying to do something new, Mellencamp pays tribute to those influences that comprise his aforementioned heritage. Here, the lyrics borrow heavily from the egalitarian attitudes of '60s folk singers ("Our Country" is practically a revision of "This Land Is Your Land"), the production is unfettered, and the music emphasizes those qualities that make sixties' rock bands timeless: clarity, melody, and context. If you think "Our Country" is already worn out, give it another listen -- this time from the album, not the Chevy commercials. What you don't hear in them are the classic Byrds opening, the jaunty backbeat, and the swelling keys. Yes, it's a damn fine song, though you wouldn't know it from the television.
But Freedom's Road is full of such revisionist Mellencamp moments. Ironically, he manages to summon his legacy by rewriting it, casting himself in a more favorable light along the way. Listening to the album you'd think our good friend the Cougar is a damn musicologist. "Heaven Is a Lonely Place", for instance, sounds like Dwight Yoakam jamming with a very young Stones backed by a choir. Impressive, indeed. And "Jim Crow", while lyrically vague, is a fine piece of ambiance, replete with guitar notes that evaporate like smoke from the highway and pizzicato strings.
If there’s a weak aspect to Freedom's Road, it's the lyrics. Mellencamp has never been much of a poet, and even his classics rely upon trite depictions of American archetypes that border on Bon Jovi absurdity. There's not much difference, after all, between sucking on a chili dog outside the Tastee-Freez and putting your six-string in hock. Both situations are clear signs your life has gone horribly astray, and both make for horrible lyrics. Thankfully, Mellencamp limits the lyrical abortions to a few tracks, though when he errs, it's horrendous.
"The Americans" is the worst offender, a connect-the-cliché exercise in naïve patriotism. If you need proof, try liking this: "I like my heroes to be honest and strong/ I wear t-shirts and blue jeans/ I try to understand all the cultures of this world/ I'm an American from the Midwest..." Those are real lyrics, folks, not a prank. And cultures of the world? What Midwest has the American Fool been visiting? Is this the same Midwest that boasts a Steak and Shake every other mile along I-44? "My Aeroplane" is not quite as bad, but it's close. "Wish I had an aeroplane," Mellencamp sings," "I'd fly away up yonder/ Til I could write me the perfect song/ It'd be a song for the people/ It'd be a song that everybody could sing along." Let's follow the logic here. In the absence of having the inspiration to write a good song, Mellencamp chooses to write a song about wishing he could write a good song? That's so utterly dumb it's damn near genius.
But to slam this album for its one weak spot would be to ignore everything that's right about it. There’s no denying that, musically, Freedom's Road is authentic and inspired. The grooves are thick and swampy, the guitar riffs chime and then singe, and the whole thing sounds like an amalgamation of what's right about rock's history. More importantly, Mellencamp finally figured out that we don’t need another middle-aged rocker trying to make the charts. People who truly appreciate music would much rather see an artist being just that -- an artist, as opposed to a celebrity. Freedom's Road isn't Mellencamp trying to be popular, but a return to him being populist. And even if he lyrically misfires here and there, at least his aim is true.
And to those who feel Mellencamp sold out by handing his song over to Chevy, think of it this way: at least he reached the people he admires, and at least he believes in the product. Moreover, if Mellencamp believes in anything, it's America, and what is more American than capitalism? Sure, it ain't hip or progressive or seemingly egalitarian to say that, but we'd all rather work overtime to get the 50" inch plasma television (as opposed to settling for the 42") than to stand in food lines all day. So, in the end, you can't fault Mellencamp for teaming up with the corporate, capitalistic Chevy -- especially when he was using them more than they were using him. Sometimes, you see, you can stick it to the man, and that's what you gotta love about our country.