John Mellencamp’s Dark, Down-Home Life, Death, Love and Freedom Still Resonates

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In the period leading up to the release of Life, Death, Love and Freedom in July 2008, it was suggested that John Mellencamp was taking a Bob Dylan detour. I didn’t really get that vibe at all, because the album sounded more like he was going further back than Dylan’s time: To Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and the like.

Most of the dark but down-home lyrics could have fit in fine during the Depression; even the contemporary-minded “Jena” is phrased in Civil Rights-era prose. Yet, Life, Death, Love and Freedom remains vintage Mellencamp: “Troubled Land” is unmistakably from the same guy who gave us ’80s radio favorites like “Hurts So Good” and “Crumblin’ Down.”

Of course, all of this mid-century Americana sounds and imagery is producer T-Bone Burnett’s stock and trade, and he supplies his usual heaping helpings of tremolo and reverb, while keeping the arrangements stark: The opening “Longest Days” is accompanied by only two acoustic guitars.

However, the thing that make Life, Death, Love and Freedom such a worthy followup to 2007’s Freedom’s Road remains the artist himself: John Mellencamp’s songs were arriving at point in his career where he understood the biggest impact could be made without needing a lot of notes. The lyrics seemed to come out as natural as conversational speech, too. Moreover, his voice has settled into a weary, reserved rasp that brings out more sincere emotion than the yelling of his salad days ever did: That sneering growl on “John Cockers,” for example, is deadly effective.

Life, Death, Love and Freedom confirmed a late-career renaissance for the then-56-year-old with more than 30 years in the music business. At this point, John Mellencamp’s last two albums had been among his very best. Some things just get better with age.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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