By Mark Guarino
He’s an American. He wears T-shirts and blue jeans. He respects your point of view and wishes you good luck with whatever you do.
Meet John Mellencamp, self-appointed U.S. ambassador to the French and other global peoples fed up with ugly Americans, Britney car shots, Mickey D’s and misadventures in Iraq. “Freedom’s Road” (UMG/Universal Republic), his first album of all original songs in six years, is at first blush rife with anthems touting Heartland niceties that are universal no matter what state you live in, blue or red. These are songs done up the traditional Mellencamp way, with big Rickenbacker guitars, fiddle, baseball organ and anthem-cheering pop hooks.
There would be no other way to deliver a song like “The Americans,” a no-nonsense anthem of homeland pride where Mellencamp sings, “I mind my manners most of the time/When you come down here/stop and say hello … I respect you and your point of view.” On “Our Country,” another Byrds-friendly track, he wakes up and it’s morning in his particular slice of America. “There’s room enough here for science to live/and there’s room enough here for religion to forgive,” he sings.
The optimism arrives in heavy doses, positioning the songs to stand alongside “Small Town,” “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” and other Mellencamp catalog staples. (One song’s so daggum American, it’s touting Chevrolets!) But beneath the musical panhandling is a darker album that’s angrier. Mellencamp is a populist, but he’s no Toby Keith. He’s never worn that label so easily, especially with albums that continue to mine the discontent of small town life in a nation that insists against clear evidence that it’s morning in America for everyone.
Despite his past flirtations with techno and hip-hop, “Road,” in stores today, primarily showcases Mellencamp’s love with 1960’s garage rock, from the swirling dark grooves of “Ghost Towns Along the Highway” to the big roots rock swagger of “My Aeroplane” to the group choruses of “Forgiveness.” The guitars are positioned front-and-center and thick, yet there is plenty of room left open for the songs to breathe. Live and warm, this is Mellencamp’s strongest collection of songs in recent years.
Sidestep the stars-and-stripes and you’ll find the real standouts. “Rural Route,” a spooky folk meditation, follows the mystery of a missing girl; “Jim Crow,” a duet with Joan Baez, is suspended in an echo chamber, pushed by steel guitar straight out of David Lynch. “Look what Jim Crow’s done and gone/went and changed his name,” he sings. She answers: “You call it what you want to/it’s still a minstrel show.” On this album, Mellencamp’s America is good, bad and ugly.