During an uncomfortably cantankerous Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction speech for John Mellencamp earlier this year, Billy Joel griped that people hate it when rock stars don't die before they get old. "The only thing sexier than a hit record is death," he sniffed. It might have come off like a pity party for America's beloved Piano Man, but in a way, Joel was perfectly describing Mellencamp's recent career. The heartland rocker had a hit record with 2007's Freedom Road, scoring his highest chart debut in more than 20 years, but he had to turn the single "Our Country" into an annoyingly ubiquitous commercial jingle to do it. Now on Life Death Love And Freedom—possibly the most Mellencamp-like album title ever—he's singing about entering the great Hall Of Fame in the sky, and hoping some of that sexy death appeal rubs off in the process.
The "let's ponder mortality" record is a popular move for aging rockers—it's a surprise Rick Rubin isn't involved—but Mellencamp is less subtle than most. He pleads with Jesus for deliverance from a hard world on the self-explanatory "A Ride Back Home," confesses "I ain't got no friends" on "John Cockers," and, in case it wasn't already screamingly obvious, spells out his feelings about the big D plainly on "If I Die Sudden" and "Don't Need This Body." With producer T-Bone Burnett stripping his rootsy jangle down to a monochromatic, almost lo-fi rumble, Life Death Love And Freedom practically demands to be called "Mellencamp's darkest yet," but it's really just relentlessly downbeat and one-note.