Spin Control

January 21, 2007



John Mellencamp, "Freedom's Road" (Universal Republic) 1 star

You've seen the TV ad: a 60-second spot for a Chevy SUV that intersperses some of the most uplifting images in American history (immigrants at the Statue of Liberty, the first man on the moon) with distinctly darker episodes (Vietnam, Watergate), all set to John Mellencamp's "Our Country," one of 10 songs plus a bonus track on his new album. The Bloomington, Ind., auteur was chosen because his "voice is uniquely American," according to the creative director who crafted the commercial; the message, the ad exec explained, is that the truck, like our country, has endured good times and bad. Well, the same is true of Mellencamp, and this album is a very bad time for him, indeed.

Mellencamp has never been a subtle artist, but at his best, he's stopped just short of pure hokum as he served up his corn-fed Americana with heaping sides of pleasant jangle and snappy backbeats, and you had to give him extra points for being so well-meaning, what with Farm Aid and all. Troubled by what he saw as our eroding freedoms in the wake of 9/11 and a misguided war in Iraq, he gave us "Trouble No More" in 2003, a soulful and finely nuanced collection of understated blues and folk standards ranging from an inspired reworking of Woody Guthrie's "From Baltimore to Washington" to a poignant version of "The End of the World," first popularized by Skeeter Davis. Well, things haven't improved much, and Mellencamp is still troubled, but here he made the misguided decision to talk about it all in his own would-be Woody-esque words, but with nowhere near Guthrie's depth or poetry.

"I like my heroes to be honest and strong / I wear T-shirts and blue jeans / I try to understand all the cultures of this world / I'm an American from the Midwest," Mellencamp sings in "The Americans," stating the obvious with self-parodying idealism. This is something he does throughout the disc, whether he's musing about "Ghost Towns Along the Highway," begging for "Forgiveness," driving down a "Rural Route," flying over the countryside in "My Aeroplane" or being joined by Joan Baez to bemoan the evils of "Jim Crow."

You might say that Neil Young committed the same sort of cinderblock-to-the-head sins on "Living With War," which was one of my favorite albums of 2006. But I'd argue that Young backed up the anger in his lyrics with the fire in his music, while Mellencamp is just recycling the aforementioned innocuous, radio-friendly jangle and backbeats. And with a statement such as "Let's impeach the President for lying," ol' Neil told us exactly where he stands and offered a possible solution, while the best Mellencamp can do is to portray an America even Norman Rockwell would find sanitized and unrealistic, while offering that if we all just believe it's possible, "Someday" (as in "someday, but I don't know when") things will get better and all our problems will be solved -- just like in a TV commercial.