Published on May 15th, 2014 | by Andy Sedlak
‘Life, Death, Love and Freedom’ – John Mellencamp 
Summary: Disregard the album title – this should have been called 'Death, Death, Death and Death'. One our most cherished heartland rockers dims the lights and hands over 14 songs about hard truths and sobering conclusions.
Released: July 15, 2008
Producer: T Bone Burnett
Label: Hear Music
Top 40 U.S. Singles: 0
Peak Position on Billboard Album Chart: 7
John Mellencamp hasn’t released a chart-topping album since 1982 but the anti-star may finally be at ease with his own product.
The Guthrie bug seemingly bit John in the 80s and we can probably conclude the artistic evolution that followed culminated in the mid-2000s. He released three largely acoustic folk albums between 2007 and 2010. Their tales of outsiders, rural poverty and murder victims garnered some of the best reviews of his career.
Guthrie-esque? Oh, you betcha.
But the reluctant pop star’s eyes had been on darker themes for some time. I’ve always said he wrote one of the most brutal lines in rock:
Oh yeah, life goes on
Long after the thrill of living is gone.
Life, Death, Love and Freedom, released in 2008, stretches that couplet out for nearly 50 minutes. Mellencamp’s characters are trudging across a desolate ground devoid of any and all “thrill.” He’s still raising artistic hell. He’s just quieter about it these days – literally and metaphorically.
If you still imagine an All-American mullet prancing around in tattered Levi’s, you’re so 1985. Mellencamp’s come a long way from the caricature he remains known for. Life, Death, Love and Freedom opens with “Longest Days,” a sparse three-minute dirge that comes to the following conclusion:
Nothing lasts forever
The best efforts don’t always pay
Sometimes you get sick and you don’t get better
That’s when life is short, even in its longest days
A live take of the record’s opening cut, “Longest Days.”
It doesn’t get much sunnier after that. “My Sweet Love” is a softer take on the tried-and-true Bo Diddley riff. It succeeds in providing a sentimental cushion – already needed after just one song.
Here are some song titles that follow:
“If I Die Sudden”
“Young Without Lovers”
“Don’t Need This Body”
“Without A Shot”
These are terse, hardened songs. Only one on the album stretches out past four minutes. Mellencamp’s voice is noticably huskier – as if the Marlboros finally caught up with him. And lines like “All I got left is a head full of memories” sound jarring coming from Mr. Hurts So Good. It’s like attending an unsettling class reunion. You may know that person, but just barely.
Life, Death, Love and Freedom hits its stride after “Troubled Land,” which is just a generic hell in a hand basket lament. But starting with “Young Without Lovers,”Mellencamp reveals some serious scars. The album turns its attention to men in a dire state of self-loathing.
“Life is an abstraction and it tries to fool us all,” he sings on “Young Without Lovers.”
“I see people coming and going, but I ain’t got no friends,” he sings on “John Cockers.”
“This getting older, well it ain’t for cowards,” he sings on “Don’t Need This Body.”
From “A Ride Back Home:”
Hey Jesus, this world is too troublesome for me
I try to fight off all these demons but I’m just too weak
Well, I’m out here walking alone
I feel like taking my life, but I won’t
Too big a coward
Can you give me a ride back home?
“Mean” is one of the best songs of Mellencamp’s career. He’s no actor – the fatigue you’re hearing on the track is real.
“I would put that album, that collection of songs, up against any record ever made,” he said about Life, Death, Love and Freedom a few years after its release. “In my mind, it’s as good as just about any record ever made.”
The video for single “A Ride Back Home.”
The folk tradition – and that’s where Mellencamp sees himself fitting in these days – is full of songs about ruthless thieves, social injustice and murder. Even the genre’s earliest pioneers led lives that mirrored the themes they’d write about. Lead Belly, a prison escapee in 1915, may be the ultimate example. He was accused of a number of things throughout his life, and that includes killing a relative.
For that crime, he was pardoned after seven years behind bars.
Then there’s Pete Seeger, who was blacklisted in the 1950s. A decade later, kids with Bob Dylan songs in their heads stood in front of badges with billy clubs – asserting for things their parents never did. Their success rate depends on who you ask.
But legions of writers from Dylan to Conor Oberst have pored over the works of lifelong ramblers like Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston. Delta blues musician Robert Johnson, who died mysteriously in 1938 – murder is suspected – cast an equally long shadow of influence over folkies.
There’s a certain appeal in penning a song as hard and desolate as the subjects you’re writing about. Life, Death, Love and Freedom, to me, seems like Mellencamp’s attempt at immersing himself in that world.
At the helm of Life, Death, Love and Freedom is one of the greatest historians in music. T-Bone Burnett, who’s produced rustic albums by Jakob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Robert Randolph, Gregg Allman and Willie Nelson, seems like an appropriate choice to ride shotgun for Mellencamp. T-Bone, whose real name is Joseph, also produced the Crazy Heart and O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtracks. Aside from production duties, Burnett is credited with playing three guitars, a four-string bass and a six-string bass on the album. That makes him the most heavily featured musician besides Mellencamp.
Burnett always seemed like a likable guy, but it never totally sounded like he pushed his clients in the booth. After he sprinkled his throwback folkie dust, he seemed like a player’s coach. It’s almost like I can picture him saying “Sounds fine to me” a little too often.
Life, Death, Love and Freedom ends with “A Brand New Song,” which doesn’t draw any massive conclusions. But by that point, you couldn’t have possibly been expecting any.
“That’s the trouble with the future,” he sings. “It always stays the same.”
Mellencamp plays “Troubled Land” on Late Show with David Letterman.
Life, Death, Love and Freedom doesn’t sound rustic in the way Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska does. That album was recorded by a borderline depressant alone in his bedroom. And he was using equipment not half as good as what you’ve got on your smartphone right now. Life, Death, Love and Freedom was recorded at Mellencamp’s elaborate home recording studio, Belmont Mall, and at Electro Magnetic Studios in Los Angeles. And unlike Springsteen, Mellencamp was born to write a hook. Even the album’s bleakest songs have a hummable melody line.
And while Springsteen embodies the working class philosopher, Mellencamp always seemed like a bonafide working class man. In 2008, his plain-spoken characters were constantly looking backwards.
“It seems like once upon a time ago I was where I was supposed to be/My vision was true and my heart was too,” he sings on “Longest Days.” Later, Mellencamp repeats almost the exact same sentiment when he laments he “showed promise once upon a time ago.”
Mellencamp’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.
John Mellencamp’s long and storied career is chock-full of record company horrors, critical lashings and self-loathing. They call him “The Little Bastard,” and he seemed to relish in fighting city hall. But he kept the hits coming, in spite of whatever was written and said about his music and image.
It’s been a constant fight for respect and it all culminated in 2008 when he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“I never cared about money, but I always wanted to get paid,” he said at the ceremony.
Well, he’s been paid. Now he wants an invite to the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.