What does John Mellencamp have to do to get a break? Sure, we can get on him for the Chevy commercial, but the song's great. Yet something has been lacking in Mellencamp efforts since the days of Dance Naked and his self-titled Columbia record -- in other words, everything since Human Wheels (which never got a fair hearing). Artists get to experiment, and willingly populist artists -- which he most certainly is -- can get trapped. He tried to bring his audience along to where he was musically, but seemingly never solidified that place himself. Which brings us to Freedom's Road. This set is perhaps the darker side of Lonesome Jubilee, and takes the small-town vision of Scarecrow and Big Daddy and fans it out. The music is a rootsy, excellent blend of electric and acoustic guitars, fiddle, big fat drums, and lots of space. The other musical difference is the help of country superstar quartet Little Big Town (who really are to their genre what Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac was to rock and pop -- and look to cross over to that side, too) on backing vocals throughout. They add a depth of field on cuts like "Someday," with its staggered, layered harmonies, ringing electric guitars, and lost-in-America vision. It's followed by "Ghost Towns Along the Highway." Mellencamp is looking far outside Indiana here, and when he sings "Well, our love keeps on movin'/To the nearest faraway place/I guess no one believes it's/Ghost towns along the highway/Ghost towns along the main highway," a forlorn fiddle glides ragged above the electric six-strings and the drums shuffle to keep up in the void.
"The Americans" and "Our Country" (which is here, of course) are the natural extensions of "Little Pink Houses." These are songs of determination, of definition of what it means to be an American from the Midwest in an era when America seems to be losing sight of itself. These two tracks have easily identifiable hooks and refrains, and with those big choruses, one can see the video footage from all across the country rolling by on a TV screen, or feel the vibe out on your neighborhood street, that this is the way it should be: open, honest, willing, and, above all, tolerant. There is no Ugly American syndrome in either of these songs: "If you ever need some help, come and look my way/'Cause I try to be here for everyone/I'm an American/And I respect your point of view...and I wish you good fortune with whatever you do." This is no rallying cry, it's a simply declaration and exhortation to be the citizens of the world this country has always seen itself as (and was seen as by so many) -- at least until 9/11. That this is stated inside rock & roll songs is all the better; it's a great export that has given voice to different world expressions of what that is -- and it certainly beats jingoistic sloganeering.
It's not all optimism, however. The collision of spooky old-time folk, country, and blues that meet in rock drenches the title cut with its double-time snare, edgy Rickenbacker guitars, funky middle-eight bass break, and infectious group chorus. Mellencamp sings it straight: he doesn't have to shout or growl: "Sometimes there'll be rape/Sometimes there's murder/Sometimes there's darkness everywhere.../There's information, but no one cares.../Freedom's road can get narrow.../If you're looking for the devil/He's out there, on freedom's road." And moving forward a track he digs for accountability in "Jim Crow," with Joan Baez on duet vocals. With a spooky string section echoing in the background, a lone electric, and layered acoustics, he sings "Look what Jim Crow's done/Gone and changed his name/Don't know what he's calling himself these days/But he's still acting the same," and Baez counters "You can call it what you want/But it's still a minstrel show." The guitars get angrier, rising as do the strings countering them; it's a cut full of drama, shame, and an indictment to repentance with the blind weight of the history of America's injustice to its own.
When "Our Country" follows, it's a statement of not just rights and dreams, but responsibilities. The TV commercial makes the track seem more romantic than it is. In Mellencamp's view, just because the power game has shifted the dialogue toward protectionism and paranoia, it doesn't change the vision that -- most of -- America's populace wants to be what we have always said we were. In other words, we owe that not only to ourselves, but to the world. That it's the best hook Mellencamp has written in ages underscores this fact. Is it overly optimistic and idealistic? Maybe, but perhaps in the face of all the frightening ambiguity that comes from actually becoming the melting pot of the world -- we have now realized our collective ideal -- we need to restate the obvious because it's been covered over by insularity and darkness.
All of this in a mainstream rock & roll album? You bet. It's got it all: pleasure, desire, jeremiads, love, disillusionment, big drums, rollicking guitars, and above all an accessible kind of passion. The scorcher that intersects American music at the crossroads of Johnny Rivers, J.B. Lenoir, Gene Vincent, the Staple Singers, and Mellencamp's own "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." is the closer, "Heaven Is a Lonely Place." The track actually ends at 4:30, and after a little over three minutes of silence, there's a tough surprise that lasts until the 12-minute mark. Freedom's Road is not merely a new (or another) John Mellencamp album, but the work of a populist artist at his very best; he's spinning his heart-worn, ragged roots rock tomes about struggle, determination, and the possibility of redemption. He's not promising anything like a foregone conclusion at this point, but it's there if we want it bad enough. Song-wise, this is a stronger album from Mellencamp than we had any right to expect, and an excellent from-the-cradle album when we need it most.