To be quite honest, I want to marry this album and have its children. Every so often I find music that's just so good I literally cannot find enough good things to say about it. This is one of those discs. Five stars is insufficient; Mellencamp returns after five years away from the studio with some of his grittiest, most honest work - and this is an artist who's always been pretty darned gritty and bone-deep honest. For the first time in a long time, I'm feeling proud of being an American again.
We've already all heard the chorus of the song "Our Country," used in the somewhat controversial ads for the new Chevy truck; but if you listen to the lyrics, you'll find a lot of good stuff in there, not just for selling off pickups. Listen to "There's room enough here/ For science to live/ And there's room enough here/ For religion to forgive/ And try to understand/ All the people of this land/ This is our country" and feel once again what it's like to be a free country-one that's really free, you know, where you can speak your mind without being called a traitor? That's what this music feels like. In a much more timeless way than last year's Living With War from Neil Young, Freedom's Road delves into today's problems and exposes them, but always keeps in mind what folk music is supposed to sound like, feel like, and what emotions can be brought to the surface when you listen to it. Start out with an almost surreal rock tune like "Someday" - "Brother brother oh brother/ Why are you walking down this road here/ This is the road of madness and trouble/ And it's paved with intolerance, ignorance and fear/ . . .Drinking our liquor from a paper cup/ Mean to each other/ Enough is enough/ I look at your face/ You look just like me/ Hey brother, I'm not your enemy" and move seamlessly to the drum-driven "Ghost Towns Along The Highway," bringing to mind all sorts of images, dusty desert back roads and empty buildings with windows like missing teeth-although that's not even what the song is about. It's all emotion.
In the poignant "Jim Crow" Mellencamp puts to words exactly what I've been thinking since the entire flap about the banning of "the N word!" hit the broadcast news - the simple truth is that it doesn't matter what you call something, what word you hang on it, until the attitudes themselves change, any label remains a label, and insult is intended. No matter how you phrase something, if the intent is ill, the word is, as well. That will never change, which is why we keep on changing the words to make everything shiny and clean and inoffensive. Given enough time and unchanging attitudes, your new PC phrase will soon be just as offensive as the last one was. Joined by the beauteous voice of Joan Baez, this tune reminds us, "Look what Jim Crow's done and gone/ Went and changed his name/ Don't know what he's going by these days/ But he's still actin' the same/ You can call it what you want to/ But it's still a minstrel show/ You can call it what you want to/ But it's still Jim Crow." Mellencamp pinpoints not only racial and political unrest, but also touches on all the crazed and uneven situations occurring in the country today, from self-righteous religiosity to drug abuse, rape and poverty and hardship, those things that will always be with us; he sings about these things with the conviction of a man who believes, who wants to open eyes and maybe open hearts, as well.
The only thing that would keep me from giving this ten stars, if I could, is one of my little pet peeves when it comes to CD production - an uncredited "hidden" track... some four minutes of silence after the end of the final song. If you're anything like me, you think the disc has ended and either go to stop it, or think there's something wrong with your player. No. You just have to sit still with your earbuds in, waiting and waiting and waiting until the music starts again. If artists are going to put hidden tracks on their discs, why not just make it a self-standing track? Now everyone's stuck with a 12:02 minute cut that only has 8:48 minutes' worth of music. Plus, of course, I don't know the title of the song. It starts out nicely, "Well, there's blood on the hands of the rich politicians/ Red is the color of the sand and the sea/ blood on the hands of the arrogant nation/ start all the bleeding over there by the sea" but the repeating refrain of "the bloody red eyes of the rodeo clown" gives me a really uneasy visual, one which I'm pretty certain wasn't the actual intent of the song. In any case, I think Mellencamp did well to rest outside of the studio for a few years, because he's come back strong. Some of the lyrics are a little pedestrian, as with "The Americans," but dang it - it feels good to feel good again, and for that alone I love this disc. He reminds me that for all the bad that's happening, it's still a pretty awesome place to live. And all we have to do is wait two more years.
- Ghost Towns Along The Highway
- The Americans
- Freedom's Road
- Jim Crow
- Our Country
- Rural Route
- My Aeroplane
- Heaven is a Lonely Place