Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2010, Volume 17, #8
Written by John Metzger
Mon August 30, 2010, 06:30 AM CDT
The last time that Tom Petty recorded an album with the Heartbreakers, he was expressing his frustration with the music business on The Last DJ. In the years that followed, he has threatened to retire, crafted a universally acclaimed solo endeavor that wrestled with middle-age anxieties (Highway Companion), and revived Mudcrutch, the outfit that preceded the Heartbreakers. Petty has been searching for something since his marriage collapsed — leaving him angry and alone, a topic that served as the subject of his 1999 endeavor Echo. In essence, all of these albums have been stepping stones for him, and each has been dependent upon its predecessor. Some might consider this thematic linkage a form of self-healing therapy. In many ways, his latest offering Mojo ties everything together, too. Not surprisingly, Petty and the Heartbreakers have never sounded quite as assured as they do throughout the set.
Whipped by churning harmonica and snarling guitar, Mojo races out of the starting gate with the driving force of Jefferson Jericho Blues. The album’s intensity never recedes until the final chord of Good Enough — a song that adopts the cascading structure of The Beatles’ I Want You (She’s So Heavy) — has been played. At its core, Mojo isn’t dramatically different from most of Petty’s endeavors with the Heartbreakers. The only change he really made to his approach is that instead of tightening up the songs, he keeps them loose. The end result is that the set revolves around the many touchstones of his career without duplicating them.
A direct descendent of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Mojo frequently delivers its amplified blues tunes with the chaotic swagger of a garage band from the South. Yet, there’s even more to the endeavor than this. Throughout Mojo, Petty and the Heartbreakers dabble in country (No Reason to Cry), run the explosive fury of AC/DC (I Should Have Known It) into the primal blues of Led Zeppelin (U.S. 41), cross into Texas to visit with ZZ Top (Let Yourself Go), and dabble in jam-band heaven by smashing the Grateful Dead into the Allman Brothers Band (First Flash of Freedom).
Petty took a lean, mean approach to recording Mojo. Because the songs were captured in as few takes as possible, without overdubs, the outing contains a sense of urgency that exudes an aura of youthful aggression. Nevertheless, Petty’s maturity means that he also left room for the material to breathe and develop at its own pace. A byproduct of this is the enhanced presence of guitarist Mike Campbell. Campbell has always been Petty’s secret weapon, but throughout Mojo, he is given a bigger opportunity to highlight his full range of expression. The other members of the Heartbreakers are equally vital to the affair, though, shading and coloring the material in ways that keep its emotional core fluid. Bathed in the warmth of vinyl, Mojo often feels as if Petty is trying to remind the world of the things that made his favorite records from the 1960s so groundbreaking and appealing.
Although it doesn’t have an overarching storyline, Mojo’s songs are inhabited by a cast of characters who share common traits. They are hard-working Americans whose moral compasses gravitate toward the grey areas of life. Battered but not broken, they are all either running from or searching for something, sometimes both. As they trace the long, winding highways of a nation in disrepair, they do whatever they can to get what they need, while causing the least amount of harm to the others they encounter. There are neither regrets nor paydays, and the victories come simply through surviving to experience another day. Mojo is hardly autobiographical, but deep down inside, Petty finds sympathy for his subjects because they often evoke the trials and tribulations of his own personal journey. ˝
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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