John Mellencamp - Life, Death, Live and Freedom

Once a musician attains a certain level of success the intricacy in finding the muse isn't as effortless as it may seem. You begin to query everything you do, spend more time writing and recording the lead single than you do the other ten songs for the record. And if the end result does not ascertain a certain level of success, a crisis of faith evolves. Some artists eventually realize that trying to keep up with a rat race is a losing game and just turn inward. It's often only when this happens that they are truly free�when they stop worrying about pleasing share holders and suits at the big four record labels. The latter part of the 1990's and the first part of the 2000's were a trying time for John Mellencamp. He had a consistent string of solid records that never got the push they deserved by the labels, but they don't hold the blame alone. During this time, Mellencamp's shows became shorter and shorter with each tour and if one was lucky, they would see two new songs from the latest record. His reliance on his back catalog eventually became a liability. When I was sent to review Mellencamp in the fall of 2007, I stopped wishing he'd do a three hour show and dig into his catalog for some invigorating chestnuts. I just went to have fun and I'd report about it, nothing more-nothing less. But what happened on that fall night was an eye opening bombshell. Gone was the macho bravado that had encompassed most of his shows for the better part of three decades and in its place was a stoical artist who once again embodied my struggles, your struggles and the struggles of the world at whole. It was as if I was laying eyes on an artist I had never heard about in a small smoky club. On this particular evening, Mellencamp played five unreleased songs. Some of these performances have just recently been released on his new live EP Life, Death, Live & Freedom. These live performances sent shivers not just down my spine, but into my soul as well.

Over the course of the next year, I watched this artist who had drifted from my consciousness build himself and his art from the ground up and reinvent himself in ways I never thought were possible. He continued to road test material even though it would be months before it would be released. When it was finally released in July of 2008, Life, Death, Love and Freedom was more than a return to form, it was the magnum opus I have been expecting from him for the better part of his career. Make no mistake, I felt that his run of albums from 1982 to 1994 (American Fool through Dance Naked) is one of the modern eras truly illustrious periods of creativity. What LDL&F embodies is a record that no one possibly apart from the dearly departed Timothy White thought was possible from the once named Johnny Cougar. The tour leading up to the album's release was some of the most intimate shows of his career. It doesn't matter that the arenas were larger than many of the theatres he performed in during 1997. This was all about reestablishing a bond with his audience. Speaking to the audience in a way he hadn't done in decades. The Mellencamp shows of the latter 90's and early part of this decade left me cold. Mellencamp barely acknowledged the audience and no matter how imaginative his arrangements were of classic material, he all but ignored his recent albums. Once an artist stops trying to challenge his audience, they stop evolving and in my opinion they may as well stop creating. Mellencamp produced a number of fine albums during this time, but when it came time to tour them, he fell back into routine and would perform only one or two new songs, most often the radio hits.

The 2007-2008 tour was a soulful resurrection of a man who had faced death and came out on the other side, creatively and physically. For the previous decade true revelation remained shrouded in mystery with only minor hints bubbling to the surface and for the first time in his storied career, Mellencamp decided these performances should live on beyond those who observed those fall and winter nights. It's stunning to realize that it took Mellencamp 33-years after his debut record to release a live recording that was something more than a few B-sides. The performances housed on the live EP Life, Death, Live & Freedom feature Mellencamp at his most severe and sincere. The most astounding track of both albums is "Longest Days"; where the narrator's careless days of youthfulness have vanished and is now facing death head on. This is the voice of a man with great astuteness. Mellencamp's cutting lyrics are accompanied merely by six-strings, and even in this most naked of formats the song is an epiphany for the ages. The unforgiving realities of the world crumble around you when you hear the lyric, "Sometimes you get sick and you don't get better" it encompasses you in full. The fragility of life is established by a performance just as delicate allowing the audience to let the music sink in. It's easy to turn up the volume and sweep people away in a dreamless state, but it's far more meaningful when you are given something to sink your teeth into.

By living in the Midwest and not in a high income zip code on one of the coasts, Mellencamp has seen the horrors that the recent economic climate has brought upon the majority of this country, which he exposes on "Troubled Land". On the line "We can turn up our collars/ And never even try" he sings with a man who is pissed at what will be left for his children and grandchildren. He's not merely performing, but expunging the anger from within. "If I Die Sudden" features a lashing vocal that hits home. It's more stinging live than even on record. Andy York's fingers glide with the soul of a lost bluesman providing punctuation to the song allowing us to seep in and feel the desperation. The performances of "Jena" weren't just judicious, but its delivery (by the full band) with an awareness of its subject matter leaves you with a life lesson. In a world so gung-ho on political correctness, performances like this are absent on most live performances these days. "Don't Need This Body" is performed on an acoustic with nominal instrumentation allowing the bitter lyrics to snap at you. The narrator speaks from a journeyman's soul. "Young Without Lovers" is performed by Mellencamp with nothing more than his acoustic; a vexing tale that invigorated the crowd enough for them to assist Mellencamp on the chorus, but the eeriness of the verses stick with you after the song and applause fades out. "A Ride Back Home" features a pleading vocal from a man who is closer to the end than the beginning. In the lyric of "My time's come and gone/ It's as simple as that", Mellencamp brings the song to a halt to ensure the crowd could linger on every last word. This is a man who despite all of his hopes and dreams, the world is proving to be too troublesome for even him and is looking for guidance from above. It's a leap of faith from the narrator to embrace a higher power at this stage in life and as you hear the raucous applause at the end of this track, it is evident the crowd is looking for guidance as well and Mellencamp is driving the train of redemption. "My Sweet Love" ends the live EP with upbeat momentum. Despite the somber tales of anguish and despondency, John Mellencamp finds a way to fortify his audience and impart them with optimism alluding to how the forbidden fruit of love can elevate you even at your most desperate hour. Like a folk artist from the 1960's Mellencamp is traveling down dark corridors of the American psyche and what differentiates him from others is that he's doing it with conviction.

John Mellencamp was a man who lived his life to the fullest and is trying to impart some of his wisdom with his audience. This is the record of a wise man who has seen all life has to offer and despite all of his accolades and success but has the common sense to know this all won't last forever. I witnessed two shows on the 2007-2008 tour and both times Mellencamp was delivering a message of hope and despair with a sense of down-home intimacy. It was as if I had entered another world where he created music without the weight of his past. Life, Death, Live and Freedom showcases Mellencamp at his most prosaic and philosophical. This is him as his most real since Human Wheels. I watched this man who had filled my dreams with faith, helped me cope with fear and who at times flat out disappointed me evolve into something else. That concert tour and this new live release (his first in his career) finds John Mellencamp rejuvenated with the purpose of being an artist. He once was lost but now was found�amazing grace indeed.

Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.

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