Life, Death, Love And Freedom

John Mellencamp

Fresh from producing the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss record Raising Sand, T Bone Burnett has set his sights on another figure whose image is forever ingrained in struggle, gumption and wherewithal: John Mellencamp. The Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer may have gotten a shot in the arm creatively with 2007’s Freedom’s Road, but now he’s returned to the frontlines with Burnett paving the way on a powerful 14-track opus: Life, Death, Love And Freedom.

Whether he realizes it or not, Mellencamp often aspires to the emotional plateau of Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. “Longest Days,” the stark and barren opener on Life, Death, Love And Freedom, succinctly bottles the sauce of the Boss, but Mellencamp remains defiantly individualistic in its smooth delivery. The country bounce of “My Sweet Love,” featuring back-up vocals from Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town, takes the listener down another road without the drama and pageantry. But it’s typically drama and pageantry that give Mellencamp’s music its distinct, striking flavor and resonance. You needn’t go much further than “Don’t Need This Body” where the singer questions his own mortality in lieu of growing old gracefully or kicking and screaming to the grave. One can only hasten a guess as to which path Mellencamp will follow, but the song’s reflective tone gives rise to further introspection. Country folk and blues have a beautiful way of doing that.

For his part, Burnett can turn a collection of acoustic instruments into a cosmic country symphony (can you imagine the possibilities of a Gram Parsons and T Bone Burnett collaboration?). This seems to work wonders on most projects he heads up. For Life, Death, Love And Freedom, however, the producer took one giant leap forward by integrating a new recording process called Code. Engineered for optimum sound quality across all formats — CDs, DVDs and digital — Code forgoes the compression that tends to cool the warmth and sharpen the contours. But all the technical embellishments can’t strip away the record’s sparse and elegant approach. “Mean,” “For The Children” and “A Brand New Song,” each wrapped in a sheath of effortless fortitude, are three more reasons why Mellencamp’s role as a singer and songwriter with a conscious can still reach ears and touch hearts. Even a few glossy rock and roll skeletons in the closet can’t erase that fact.

~ Shawn Perry

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