John Mellencamp continues his ongoing evolution into something of a modern populist folk hero on Life Death Love and Freedom, a record that draws clear inspiration from early-period Bob Dylan in its plainspokenness and relatively austere folk and acoustic blues arrangements. The hook to Mellencamp’s biggest hit, 1982’s seemingly immortal “Jack and Diane,” claims that, “Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone,” and Life often plays like a quarter-century’s worth of reflection on that idea and whether or not it holds true. Indeed, Mellencamp’s own brushes with mortality give a definite weight to tracks like opener “Longest Days,” “If I Die Sudden” and “Don’t Need This Body.” Despite the breadth suggested by its title, the album conveys a singularly bleak worldview, as Mellencamp considers the definite lack of freedom afforded by both the current political climate (on the ironically-titled “For the Children” and standout “Troubled Land”) and by aging (the self-isolating narrators of “John Cockers” and “If I Die Sudden” don’t have a lot of options). Excellent lead single “My Sweet Love,” which boasts a female harmony vocal throughout, offers the set’s only real reprieve. But Mellencamp can pull off this kind of malaise—it’s certainly more fitting with his artistic persona than writing jingles to sell Chevy trucks—and that his world-weariness feels legitimately earned rather than affected keeps Life from being just an exercise in pessimism.
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