His latest album may be coming out on the Starbucks-owned Hear Music label, and his last hit may have been the soundtrack to a Chevy commercial, but John Mellencamp sounds crankier and more pessimistic than ever on Life, Death, Love and Freedom. There’s nothing anthemic or uplifting about this bleak, unsparing album, a collection of ragged folk-blues songs about mortality, loneliness and the sad state of the world.
“This getting older/Ain’t for cowards,” Mellencamp sings on “Don’t Need This Body,” one of several songs about the regrets of old age and the specter of death. “I feel like taking my life but I won’t/Too big a coward,” he sings on the bitter entreaty to Jesus “A Ride Back Home.” Mellencamp has always been a social critic, but other than the stinging “Jena,” about the Louisiana Jena Six case, he doesn’t take on any specific issues here. Instead songs like “Troubled Land” and “Without a Shot” merely express despair about the overall piss-poor human condition.
Producer T Bone Burnett gives the album the same ethereal, old-timey quality he brought to last year’s Robert Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand, and it’s entirely fitting for Mellencamp’s twilight compositions. The desolate soundscapes do get a little repetitive over 14 tracks, and Mellencamp sometimes strains a little too hard for his Bob Dylan moments. But in staring down death, he ends up sounding more vital than ever.
The bottom line:***1/2