ohn Mellencamp has become part of the Hoosier identity. If you’re an Indiana native—particularly between, say, 30 and 45—you have an opinion on Mellencamp the way you have a loyalty to either Purdue or Indiana University. And, for the most part, you might as well either be an unabashed fan or get the hell out of the state.
Being a native Hoosier, I was raised on Mellencamp. It’s not just rock and (during his ‘80s heyday) top 40 stations that play(ed) John; you could occasionally hear his songs on country stations (particularly independent stations in smaller markets), and these days, even adult contemporary stations in Indiana play his songs on a near-daily basis. John’s ours, a state (and should-be-national) treasure who helps make plenty of us proud(er) to call ourselves Hoosiers.
That’s precisely why it pains me to report that his new album, Freedom’s Road, is awfully well-intentioned but ultimately not so great. Much of it sounds great; Mellencamp’s talked in recent interviews of his intent to make an album with a ‘60s sound, and he largely succeeds. Opener “Someday” has a hot, twangy guitar licking through its verses, while follower “Ghost Towns Along the Highway” features some nicely Stax-y organ, for starters. There’s a live-in-the-studio feel to most of this, with Mellencamp’s ’06 tourmates Little Big Town providing some fine vocal support.
What’s the problem, then? It’s John’s Achilles heel: the lyrics.
I’m an American, I’m an AmericanThat’s an honest-to-God chorus, from “The Americans.” Its verses aren’t any better. “Our Country”—the song you’ve heard in Chevy’s new ad campaign—is just as lyrically namby-pamby (“The dream is still alive / Some day it will come true / And this country it belongs / To folks like me and you,” I’m not kidding), and don’t even get me started on the opposite-of-subtle “Jim Crow” (guess, just guess). Matters aren’t helped by the guest vocalist on “Jim Crow,” Joan fucking Baez. John, just because Springsteen thinks he’s Pete Seeger havin’ a hootenanny all of a sudden doesn’t mean you should play at being Woody—or, more to the point, Arlo—Guthrie.
I respect you and your point of view
I’m an American, I’m an American
And I wish you good luck with whatever you do
Not everything here is a lyrical misstep—“Ghost Towns” could be a look at “Small Town,” 20 years on—but enough of it is. While lyrics have never been Mellencamp’s strongest suit, they’ve never been as clumsy and crotchety as this. While the 2005 collection Words & Music shows that he’s got talent in spades, Freedom’s Road mostly sounds like it was made with a generic Mellencamp album generator. Maybe these days he should stick more to his painting, where his passion clearly lies.