I’ve never been a fan of “live” albums and I know I’m not the only one. Difficult to articulate why though – I don’t think I’m so rigid that I need to hear the same song the same way with no variation every time so it’s not that and certainly, I love the whole concert experience thing even if I wasn’t actually present when they recorded. So why the aversion? Maybe it’s because the choice of songs is often less than inspiring (don’t even get me started on David Bowie’s Stage album) or the fact that some artists’ disappoint when removed from the sterility of a studio setting. It’s neither a secret nor a disrespect to note that some vocalists very clearly benefit from a bit of the – shall we say – auditory makeover that happens behind the scenes. And of course all that is fine, assumed even. But just to be clear John Mellencamp does not need help. Both his voice and his latest live offering Life Death Live and Freedom which was recorded with “no overdubs or studio enhancements of any kind” (thus quoth the liner notes) are very welcome to grace my Bose at any time.
If you are already a John Mellencamp fan – like me – you have most likely already purchased Life Death Love and Freedom - note not LIVE – when it was released and if you did, you will not find a lot of surprises here since many, although not all of the songs resurface here as live versions. So why the heck am I now extolling the value of such a similar cd of the same songs? Because John Mellencamp has a superb voice live – he’s passionate, earnest and making himself vulnerable - in a way that's so intimate, you can tell he doesn't do so easily and the listener feels flattered to be included - and that raises this album to the level of pure poetry. Mellencamp's intellectual side has frequently been dumbed down for some reason or obscured altogether (perhaps due to the rural-working-man persona he has sometimes cultivated) but the reality is that these songs – particularly on this record and particularly when sung live – are soul rending, poignant and thought provoking. The lyrics especially are swollen with angst, introspection and a refreshing lack of top dressing. With titles like Don’t Need This Body and If I Die Sudden Mellencamp serves up an unsettling midlife cocktail that many will find troubling to digest; however, John is not afraid to herald an entire series of both personal and social wake-up calls to the listener –both individually and as a nation. Also and not just as an aside the very excellent band members (Andy York: guitars, background vocals; Mike Wanchic: guitars, background vocals; Troye Kinnett: Keyboards, background vocals; the wonderful Miriam Sturm on violin; John Gunnell on bass and Dane Clark, percussion) are basically flawless and conform to his every nuance without hesitation.
The fact that he had a heart attack a few years back has no doubt played a part in John’s change of style and although this album has been dubbed maudlin by some, to do so, is to miss the point altogether: these are mature songs intentionally written not about the time worn topic of love going well – or badly – but rather, about life. It’s the classic blues credo of using music as a way through. Listen up. Oh and if you didn’t buy the first record? I think this is the better choice – the live performance is just so much more authentic. Click on the samples below to listen – you can even compare!