- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2007

John Mellencamp

Freedom’s Road

Universal Republic

“Freedom’s Road,” John Mellencamp’s first album in six years, has Important written all over it.

Its cover, a motley, sepia-colored photographic montage, looks a lot like that of the Rolling Stones’ Americana masterpiece “Exile on Main Street,” while panoramic song titles such as “The Americans,” “Forgiveness” and “Jim Crow” scream of significance.

What about the inside? Stripped of its broader ambitions, “Freedom’s Road” is Mr. Mellencamp’s most satisfying, evenly rocking set since 1993’s underrated “Human Wheels.”

The recordings sound live and hot; the guitars are sinewy, with tones drenched in reverb; the percussion is tight, boomy and filled out with infectious shakes, claps and rattles. Songs like “Someday” and “My Aeroplane” have the kind of earthy grooves — and those inspiriting communal vocal harmonies, here provided by the country quartet Little Big Town — that have made Mr. Mellencamp’s musical idiom so refreshingly funky since the days of “Lonesome Jubilee.”

Yet Mr. Mellencamp clearly wants to serve “Freedom’s Road” as an intellectual whole — not like some cafeteria of songs that you’re permitted to munch on your own terms. And what seems like a glaring irregularity for the veteran rock star — his decision to introduce the anthem-like single “Our Country” via an anodyne Chevy truck commercial — is indicative of just how much the 55-year-old Mr. Mellencamp wants the public to hear this record.

Ever combative, he comes out swinging with raw topicality. On the darkly shuffling title track, he slams the Bush administration’s haziness on matters of torture: “You can drop your bombs/You can beat people senseless/That won’t get you anywhere.”

On the hair-raising, minor-key “Jim Crow,” Mr. Mellencamp and activist folk legend Joan Baez perform a duet about lingering racism: “You can call it what you want to, but it’s still a minstrel show.”

Tucked into the gauzy populism of Chevy’s “Our Country” — Mr. Mellencamp assures us, “The dream is still alive, someday it will come true/This country, it belongs to folks like me and you” — are pointed opinions about the tense interplay of faith and politics. The line “There’s room enough here for science to live” seems straight out of Democratic talking points about the “Republican war on science.”

Mr. Mellencamp saves his most potent punches for a hidden song (found after several minutes of silence on the final track, “Heaven Is a Lonely Place”) that compares President Bush to a bloodstained rodeo clown.

A blueneck in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Willie Nelson, Mr. Mellencamp sees the American heartland as an ambiguous place. It’s not simply a repository of decent people who quietly live decent lives; it’s not the stuff of manipulative political rhetoric but rather of living, striving, fallible people. There are “little pink houses for me and you” — and then there’s “blood on the plow.”

“Rural Route,” probably the gutsiest track here, suggests that regular folks’ hardship is not always the product of pernicious farm policy; it speaks starkly of crystal-meth addiction, rape and brutality well inside the supposedly decadent coasts. No wonder “no one wants to live around here no more,” as Mr. Mellencamp sings in “Ghost Towns Along the Highway,” an emotional track about disappearing Midwestern populations.

Mr. Mellencamp’s insular view of contemporary America doesn’t always square with reality; the conflict we’re embroiled in has very little to do with the regional identities so salient in his hardscrabble lyrics.

Still, while his anger is palpable, Mr. Mellencamp’s corny plea for international understanding (“I’m an American/I respect you and your point of view”) works just as well domestically — and it’s reason enough to lay down the culture-war swords and enjoy some great American rock music.

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