Sound: For the past few decades, John Mellencamp's blend of Heartland rock has connected with audiences well beyond Middle America. While the singer/songwriter/guitarist has certainly dabbled in more of the pop-rock genre, he most recently opted to explore a more stripped-down approach that had a distinct purpose. For the 2008 release Life Death Love and Freedom, Mellencamp told Rolling Stone, I realized our country has written some sad motherf**kin' songs. I wanted to see if I had it in me to write like that... I see darkness everywhere, and I have to write about it. I don't care if I just sell six records. All I can do is keep on writing songs and singing." He accomplished his goal in full, and hearing those songs performed on the concert CD Life Death LIVE and Freedom just seems to confirm the point that Mellencamp is still a man of the people.
You may recall that the singer was one of the primary figures who spearheaded Farm Aid back in 1985, and in many ways that experience brought his folk rock roots to the forefront of the public eye. Mellencamp's latest material hearkens back to that era, but it also has a more weathered, cynical feel to it. Hearing the songs performed on a sterile studio release is one thing, but the new material is better suited for an audience. In some moments Mellencamp is so convincing that you could see him being right at home among the folk rock icons of the 1960's. Although there are only eight song selections on the live CD (as compared with the 14 tracks on the studio release), they still are engaging and heartfelt.
Interestingly enough, many of the songs on the live release were actually recorded before the studio full-length even hit store shelves. Recorded at Los Angeles' Greek Theatre, Philadelphia's Mann Music Center, Toronto's Air Canada Centre, and the Centrium in Red Deer (Alberta, Canada), you get a wide variety of dates that blend in seamlessly together. There is hardly any banter to be heard, putting the spotlight on the songs. The opening number If I Die Sudden, although a fairly low-key, grooving rock tune at first listen, is still one of the most energetic among the eight selections. It's a solid song, but Mellencamp seems most comfortable in the unplugged, folk rock genre.
The tracks Don't Need This Body, Young Without Lovers, and A Ride Back Home are easily the best selections on the CD because they are also the most understated. With the former two being straight acoustic numbers, it becomes all about the emotions and the lyrical content, which as Mellencamp promised, is a little on the depressing side. If you're a fan of Hurt So Good or Crumblin' Down, be aware that Mellencamp has left the rocker side of himself by the wayside. It's not a bad change by any means, and if you've felt a little beaten down by life, you'll probably appreciate the new direction. The fact that there are only eight tracks is somewhat disappointing, but the retail price does reflect the smaller quantity. // 7
Lyrics: The weathered, cynical side of Mellencamp is surprisingly effective. When you hear him sing such lines as, Well, all my friends are sick or dying; And I'm here all by myself; All I got left is a head full of memories (Don't Need This Body), it's both chilling and relatable. At the age of 57, the singer still could have plenty of years of performing ahead of him, but I'm sure he is quite cognizant that many of his fans (who haven't led a charmed life) can relate to a more introspective approach in the lyrical content. // 8
Overall Impression: Mellencamp had a monster hit with Pink Houses back in 1983, and that track certainly foreshadowed his current musical choices. But the material you'll hear on Life Death LIVE and Freedom goes into a much darker, downtrodden area than the aforementioned his single. While Jena and My Sweet Love are a few exceptions, the bulk of the tracks are the kind of music that makes for a great companion piece for a bottle of whiskey. There's a bluesy quality mixed in with the folk rock element, and although somewhat of a downer, still seems to work amazingly well for Mellencamp. // 8