There are two John Mellencamps. One is angry, skeptical, concerned with existential matters, ornery and ill-at-ease. The other is wide-eyed, idealistic, given to grand, sweeping generalisms and occasional lapses in sound reasoning.
On "Freedom's Road," the singer's 20th album, the two strains in Mellencamp's songwriting personality do battle. Happily, it's the dour, introspective Mellencamp who comes out the winner.
This dichotomy in Mellencamp's writing has been a key factor in the continued resonance of his canon of work, which has, ironically, been steadily losing its commercial appeal as it becomes increasingly deeper and more artistically invigorating. If we cite 1983's "Uh-Huh" as his commercial breakthrough, and 1985's "Scarecrow" as the record with which he solidified his subject matter as a songwriter and truly kicked off his career, then Mellencamp's work over the past 20-odd years can be seen to mirror the American character -- part idealistic, part angry, capable of great things, but sometimes falling short of that capability.
Mellencamp is largely known for rousing, anthemic blends of roots rock, songs like "Pink Houses" and "Small Town," which -- much like Bruce Springsteen's "Born In the U.S.A." -- were employed by many listeners in a fashion their writer never intended. Both songs cast Mellencamp as a heartland patriot and celebrator of "small-town American values," whatever those might be. Irony in pop music, something Mellencamp employs ever more masterfully with each post-"Scarecrow" release, all too often falls on deaf ears.
Mellencamp's best albums have always been his darkest, the records most riddled with self-doubt, regret and disappointment. "The Lonesome Jubilee," "Big Daddy," "Human Wheels," "John Mellencamp" -- these are timeless records, and though Mellencamp can make existential unrest sound like one helluva party, there seems to be a growing schism between the Mellencamp we hear on record and the fans who come to party and, presumably, hear the old stuff during his powerhouse live shows.
"Freedom's Road" continues this tradition. Because he employs rousing choruses that celebrate the history of folk-rock and rock 'n' roll -- from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to the garage rock of the '60s to Springsteen's '70s and '80s work -- the abundant subtleties of Mellencamp's writing are bound to be missed once again.
"Freedom's Road" has a few flaws, and most of them can be found in "The Americans," a song that screams to be a radio hit, and which presents a cringe-inducing sing-along chorus in which Mellencamp sounds like a hipper, smarter version of Toby Keith. Of course, the lyric is shaded with regret, though it's well-masked. Ultimately, "The Americans" is a tale of wishful thinking and failed ideals. It sounds, however, like the kind of tune some crass politician would employ as a feel-good campaign anthem -- and that's a problem. Repeated listening makes it plain that this is in fact a dark song, but most who hear it are not likely to dig beneath the surface.
Similarly, "Our Country," a 3-year-old song Mellencamp recently licensed to Chevrolet for a high-traffic television campaign, is not likely to be seen for what it is -- a bitter song documenting failed potential. In the commercial, we hear only the chorus, which sounds, again, like a patriotic anthem. That it's more a song of resignation than flag-waving celebration is likely to be lost even after listeners hear the whole tune.
The record would have been close to perfect if these two songs had been left off it. Even with their mild failings, however, "Freedom's Road" is a compelling album. "Someday" opens things with a gorgeous blend of acoustic and electric guitars, a killer chorus that is both subtle and indelible. "Ghost Towns Along the Highway" takes a clear-eyed view of the vanishing American small town and has the righteous anger of a Springsteen tune like "Youngstown" or Mellencamp's own "Down and Out In Paradise."
The title song posits the road to freedom as a journey through a pit of vipers; "If you're here looking for the devil, you'll find him on freedom's road" spits Mellencamp, over a roiling country-folk guitar figure and elegiac violin swells. "Jim Crow" finds Joan Baez joining Mellencamp for a heart-rending duet, the album's darkest and most profound moment coming as the two singers suggest that race relations in this country haven't been so much addressed and rectified as brushed beneath the rug.
Mellencamp's America as revealed by a close reading of the "Freedom's Road" album is one populated by racists, homophobes and corrupt politicians, weakened by a "lapdog media," cultural illiteracy and an ignorant and fearful populace given to arrogance and an ego-fueled sense of entitlement. Few writers are so consistently able to break through the facade of self-satisfaction that obscures the American reality and bring back the news with such poetic power. "Rodeo Clown," an uncredited hidden track that starts a few minutes past the closing of the official album sequence, is perhaps his most visceral attack yet. The song is clearly aimed at President Bush, described here as an evil "clown" with "bloody red eyes," his country an "arrogant nation" with "blood on her face" and ill-informed revenge on her mind. Unlike "The Americans," there's no missing Mellencamp's intent here.
Mellencamp has been a masterful record-maker ever since he and longtime guitarist Mike Wanchic began producing their albums themselves. Though Mellencamp is considered by some a lesser version Dylan, Springsteen and Tom Petty, in truth, he makes better-sounding records than all of them, aural paintings with a rich, crackling drum attack, warm guitar tones, brilliant arrangements and a vocal tone that sounds like it was recorded with Mellencamp singing in your own living room. He has surrounded himself with a wonderful band -- in particular, guitarist Andy York, whose evocative arpeggios and bluesy lines weave in and out of songs adding both color and texture, and the rhythm section of drummer Dane Clark and bassist John Gunnell providing movement to the songs.
"Freedom's Road" falls a bit short of Mellencamp's finest album, the soul-stirring "Human Wheels." But it's an impeccably recorded, well-conceived, vibrantly performed and, at its best, transcendent collection, nonetheless.
Review: Three stars (out of four)