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John Mellencamp - Freedom's Road Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 April 2007
ImageI don’t really know him but I’m pretty sure John Mellencamp is, as my old man used to say, “a stand-up, kiss-my-ass kind of guy,” and his latest release, Freedom’s Road, is a stand-up, kiss-my-ass kind of album. And that’s cool.

My friends think I’m crazy because I like JM, but I don’t really know why they don’t like him. Maybe it’s the Cougar thing, or a revolt against the production on “Jack and Diane.” Maybe it’s the plain language of his artistic voice. Or maybe he’s just not cool enough. All I know is when I say something like “Hey, the new Mellencamp’s really good,” I’m greeted with eye rolling and a smug nod.

First off: he’s not cool. But I don’t think he’s worried about it. Second, there’s nothing wrong with striving to be your generation’s Woody Guthrie. Any populist Rock Folk Musician worth a damn should set that as a target and take a shot. The thing that I like about Mellencamp is that he hits the target regularly and gets close to the bull’s eye more than people realize. From Uh-Huh on he’s chronicled the American Midwest as well as anyone save Garrison Keillor. But whereas Keillor approaches the subject with a light touch and a gentle prodding, Mellencamp takes snapshots in stark black and white. The faces are weathered, the landscapes barren, the people all too human. Freedom’s Road is actually an American musical travelogue with JM as the guy who’s slung his guitar over his shoulder, crossed the country and returned to tell us what he’s seen. From the opening plea “Someday,” with the verse “Brother, brother, oh brother/Why are you walking down this road here/This is the road of madness and trouble/And it’s paved with intolerance, ignorance and fear” through “Heaven Is a Lonely Place,” where he sings about “people taking down those golden gates,” Mellencamp isn’t afraid to tell us of the horrors he’s witnessed. But he’s not trying to titillate, or make us feel better about ourselves. He’s giving a warning. A direct warning in plain words. When he sings “Father traded his daughter for favor” on “Rural Route,” it couldn’t be any more chilling. Or creepy.

And that song, more than any other on this release, forces me to admire what he’s doing on Freedom’s Road. It’s not the kind of song that people are clamoring for, and it’s not the song of a man trying to reclaim his “Jack and Diane” sales levels. It’s the song of a man who truly cares, and is worried by what he sees. That’s Woody Guthrie carving “this machine kills fascists” into his guitar. It’s the plain spoken language of Americans for Americans.

In “Ghost Towns along the Highway” he tells us about the loss of small-town America, over stinging guitar work that has Neil Young written all over it. The same restlessness that drives us forward is the same rootlessness that causes us to leave devastation behind. It’s an unvarnished look at the true American nature.

“The Americans” sounds more like a commercial for us, the people he’s singing about, than the Chevy commercial song “Our Country.” (Which, by the way, sounds much, much better in the context of this CD.) Maybe not a commercial per se, but more of an apology to the world, as if to say, “America is not these last six years.” The Americans he sings about “respect you and your point of view,” and “wish you good luck with whatever you do.” That America is a friendly, openhearted place filled with people who invite you over. In context it sounds more of a daydream that a reality, but you can tell it’s the place he’s from, and many of us are. The landscape’s changed a little but we can get back there, he seems to be telling us. That makes me proud.

This release is way off the Rod Stewart GRCOOT scale because it displays artistic ambitions and integrity. And tell me if the two chords that make up the verses of “Ghost Towns” don’t sound faintly like, um, “Down by the River” (from Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere). As Woody Guthrie wrote in one of his song books, “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin' it without our permission … will be mighty good friends of ourn, ‘cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do."

“There is plenty of goodness in the world/I hope some day to find it all,” Mellencamp sang, and I turned my stereo way up. The Byrds-like guitars jangled and I smiled. Awesome.

Beyond this I don’t know what I can do to convince you that you should buy Freedom’s Road, put it on, and go about your business. It’s a rock and roll album filled with folk elements, and they’ll draw you in. The guy’s singing songs about things that matter, or at least should matter, and things he wants you to hear about. And eventually they grab you. You find the lyric sheet and read along. Sometimes they sound better than they read, but that’s cool. That’s kind of like Mellencamp himself.

He so uncool he’s cool. So is Freedom’s Road.

It’s a really nice-sounding recording and passed my automobile test with flying colors; as a matter of fact I kind of prefer listening to it on my car stereo versus my super-duper Sony 5.1 home theater surround sound system, or my computer set-up. I wasn’t even ashamed to turn it up loud.

The mix is a little too compressed for my tastes, and if I had my choice there would be a little more space between the instruments, a little more ambience in the room. I can’t really complain though, because I spent last month listening to the Madonna live release and that sounds like someone turned on a sequencer in a cement hallway and forgot to turn it off.

Extra Features
I bought the iTunes expanded version of Freedom’s Road and it comes with some extra songs, rough mixes of “Ghost Towns” and “Forgiveness.” It also features “Rodeo Clown,” as creepy and satisfying as “Rural Route,” which also seems to not be on the CD, but is – it’s not listed in the credits but plays at the end after a long pause. Why do they do that?!

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