Freedom's Road

When John Mellencamp finished recording his last batch of original songs, the TwinTowers were standing and Iraq was just some country we had beaten up in the Nineties.Freedom's Road has the lifelong Indiana resident attemptingto find his place in an America he has trouble recognizing: The small-town life he romanticized in the 1980s is still close to his heart, but he now paints a disturbingrural portrait of racism, unrealized dreams and crystal-meth addiction. "JimCrow" is a lovely Joan Baez duet with a dark message on the modern state ofrace relations (and perhaps hip-hop: "You can call it what you want/But it'sstill a minstrel show"). Recorded in loose jam sessions in the garage of hisIndiana studio, Freedom's Road finds Mellencamp sounding more at ease than he has in years — gone is the choir from 2001's Cuttin'Heads, and in its place is a minimalist, relaxed album that harkens backto his Scarecrow days.

The weak link is "Our Country" — a ham-fisted "Born in the USA"rewrite in which he sings, "There's room enough here for religion to forgive."Forgiveness is a more convincing theme elsewhere: Mellencamp returns to it in songsabout his very red home state and in "Forgiveness." "Rural Route,"the album's most haunting moment and one of the finest of Mellencamp's career,is a true story about the rape and murder of a young girl who lived near his parents.Lines like "Father traded his daughter for favors" sound jarring from the mouth of Mr. Jack & Diane — but they're delivered with such delicatecompassion and measured anger that it completely works. Mellencamp reserves the bile for the only political screed on the album, "Rodeo Clown," in whichhe furiously refers to the president as having the "bloody-red eyes of a rodeoclown." Forgiveness can only go so far.