Music: John Mellencamp, a Retrospective

by Rick Rockwell

Perhaps it is appropriate that John Mellencamp finds himself signed to Hear Music, the label operated by Starbucks, which seems to want to appropriate music superstars. This is the perfect marriage: the once hip coffee empire that is now more like a suburban fungus, sprouting in every mall and grocery store, embraces aging Midwestern rocker who aspires to be a Dylan to the lower, middle class heartland, but comes up short of even being Bob Seger.

This week, Mellencamp will not just be the flavor of the week in Starbucks, but he unleashes a media campaign designed to push his latest album as something truly important. You can find Mellencamp seemingly everywhere in the music media and he’ll even have a retrospective on cable television.

With the acclaimed T-Bone Burnett on board as producer, Mellencamp’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom, from the title on down has all the earmarks of a release with a portentous design: to cement Mellencamp in the minds of many as a singer for the ages. This follows Mellencamp’s induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, among one of the weakest classes of inductees ever for that not-so-hallowed institution. Rightly, Life, Death, Love and Freedom is eliciting fair to middling reviews, something that Mellencamp has managed throughout his long career, for music that sounds good playing in the speakers at the mall: it’s rock ‘n roll that’s not designed to be disruptive, which seems like an oxymoronic concept. (Even Mellencamp’s songs about rebellion, such as “The Authority Song,” sound safe.) Usually when Mellencamp is invoking the restless spirit of rock, it is in a gauzy nostalgic haze (“Jack & Diane” and “Pink Houses”). Mellencamp’s hits are two steps removed from the punch you expect in a rock song. (Except perhaps when he's singing about other rockers, as in "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.") As a rocker appealing to middle class Midwestern tastes, he never achieved the heights of Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty, artists who rarely held back on the accelerator and who pushed their audiences beyond the safe horizons. Despite Mellencamp’s politics (he was one of the organizers with Willie Nelson and Neil Young of Farm Aid, he opposes the Iraq War, and he’s backing Barack Obama) he is the epitome of corporate rock. Check “Our Country” from last year’s Freedom’s Road as a classic example: cheesy patriotism condensed into a four-minute pop song and used to sell cars on countless television ads.

This is not to say Mellencamp can’t write a sweet song. Check the perfect mix of folk, rock, and various ethnic influences he manages on The Lonesome Jubilee (“Paper in Fire,” and “Cherry Bomb,” among others) from 1987.

On Life, Death, Love and Freedom, Mellencamp crafts music that aspires to that same level. The first single from the album “My Sweet Love,” has a stripped down approach: tight harmonies on a simple folk tune, with the bass and drums pumped forward in the mix. Other songs on the new release such as “Longest Days” go more to the folk roots that Burnett specializes in highlighting. The album also includes Mellencamp’s protest song against racism, “Jena,” which is a laudable and uncommon musical testament. Despite its title though, “Brand New Song” walks the same lyrical ground you’ve heard on just about every Mellencamp release dating back to 1979’s John Cougar (when he recorded under that stage name), or “Small Town” (1985) or “Check It Out” (1987).

But perhaps this overview has Mellencamp all wrong. Maybe he should be honored for being the perfect musical artifact, a dream for some future sociologist or archaeologist looking for the key to understanding our over-corporatized mall-loving times. And if he can sell a few folks on his progressive political ideas (if those mall rats manage to make his songs more than Muzak, for a change), then more power to him.

(Promotional photo of John Mellencamp from Concord Music Group and Hear Music. Mellencamp and his backing band will play Clarkston, MI on Friday, July 18, as part of their world tour. To see the video for Mellencamp's new single "My Sweet Love," please check below.)

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