Friday, January 21, 2011

CD REVIEW: John Mellencamp, 'Freedom's Road' (2007)

CD Review by John Pietaro

John Mellencamp, Freedom’s Road, Compact Disc, 2007 Universal Music Group

Singer-songwriter John Mellencamp has long since grown out of his 1980s ‘John Cougar’ persona, yet the 55 year-old’s latest release expresses a new maturity. With “Freedom’s Road” he offers a realistic view of the United States in these times, through the metaphor of the all-American road-trip. And he takes the listener along for the ride. Hard to say exactly how the heartland will respond, but suffice to say that this album works on many levels, from social protest to flag-waver.

Yes, this album is filled with Americanisms—Country & Western-tinged radio-ready anthems (complete with the occasional fiddle and female choir) that intermingle with classic rock trappings. A strong and solid rhythm section lays down the foundation for crisp guitar leads whirling Hammond organ and gritty vocals. But the star-spangled road is one which careens along lost, dusty highways that travel through forgotten places. The Midwest of Mellencamp’s youth—or rather the idealized Midwest of his youth—has been replaced with a hard reality. Even the CD packaging speaks volumes: though adorned with wonderfully cliché photos that wreak of “brotherhood week”, good times and road travel, the sepia stain belies the tail-gait party. Closer inspection reveals what’s hidden beneath the family values…a burning cross here, a hanging tree there, a snarling police dog and a few other choice relics of the pre-Civil Rights years in small town America.

Musically, Mellencamp is probably not treading new ground here, still it’s good to know that he’s never at a loss for pop sensibility. This is a damned listenable album. It is accessible to all, even if they had to be led in through the airing of “Our Country” on a commercial before it was heard on radio (ah, John, the irony is not lost that this bitter drive through Americana was paved with a Chevy ad). No matter; once you’re in the passenger seat, you’ll listen. And I guess that’s the whole point. In recent interviews, Mellencamp stated that, but for the constant airing of his song as a jingle, his new album may have been dead on the charts upon release. Sad, but probably very much the case.

“Our Country” is far from a pedestrian number. The songwriter masterfully grafted a topical song onto a prideful Country tune which calls for bigotry to be replaced with equality, and for science to stand alongside religion. Much like a Thomas Hart Benton painting in a WPA gallery, this song speaks of a people’s USA in gritty but positive terms. Further, Mellencamp seemingly crowned the album’s title as a result of the final verse in Woody Guthrie’s song, “This Land is Your Land”, which includes the line, “Nobody living can ever stop me as I go riding down freedom’s highway…”. Mellencamp puts more than a bit of old-style populism into his music, like the founders of the folk revival. It all speaks of—and to—you and I. And what could be more American than dissent? (try telling that to a Republican back home). This emotion extends into the CD’s opening number, “Someday”, a call-and-response major-minor introduction to this journey through the back roads of the US. Its positive yet urgent message is compelling; almost a “How long? Not long” wrapped in formulaic Country-rock. With ease, it pulls the listener in.

Mellencamp pulls no punches, and expresses no patience, in cuts such as “Ghost Towns Along the Highway” (small town runes) and “Rural Route” (harsh dysfunctions and abuses masked by country secrets). And he demonstrates marked irony in “The Americans”, which expounds over-the-top American virtue. Mellencamp has explained that this lyric does not indicate the reality of human relations in the Midwest and south, but what needs to occur there. Acceptance, inclusiveness and equality are still a far-off goal for many, he explained, but the song offers no visible sign of the composer winking into his microphone. Listeners will take this at whichever level they choose to, or are ready to.

This album’s other points of immediate interest include the title song (which declares that “Freedom’s Road must be under construction”) and the powerfully significant “Jim Crow”, a duet with folk legend Joan Baez, so much a part of the Civil Rights era. Here’s a daring piece which reflects upon today’s racism, disguised as it may be beneath acceptable smiles. How easy it is for many of us to rest on the laurels of the past forty years, ignoring the various hatreds in our midst.

And that’s really what this pocket of the American experience in 2007 seems to be about. Yes—we can fight to take it back from the bigots, the corrupt leaders, the manipulators and the reactionaries, but we first need to realize that it’s gone. Otherwise “Freedom’s Road” is just more background music at a ballgame, barbecue….or a Chevy spot.


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