Due to some keen marketing and a barrage of advance press, most rock fans now know the back story of Mojo, Tom Petty’s long-awaited return to the studio with his legendary band, The Heartbreakers. Recorded live, mostly on the first take with little to no overdub or tweaking, this corps of rock and roll Hall of Famers live up to their billing with a blistering, bluesy, and furious statement of an album designed to cement their legacy to long-time fans and show a new generation how it’s done.
While Petty has followed his solo whims wherever they take him, from collaborations with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Roger McGuinn, to the late George Harrison and Roy Orbison, members of the Heartbreakers have always been close behind. Guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench usually find their way onto most Petty albums as bassist Ron Blair, drummer Steve Ferrone, and multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston are kept in reserve for proper “Heartbreaker” albums.
On Mojo, Petty brings them all together, and anchors the band through a roaring 15-song set that proves the most muscular of anything the band has accomplished throughout their 34-year career. One can almost picture Petty, always a music industry rabble-rouser, and an ardent student of rock history, smashing an iPod to pieces in frustration and calling the boys together to make an old-fashioned, Pro-Tools-be-damned, live in the studio record. They’ve always been able to pull it off live onstage, so the time has finally arrived for them to show it in the studio.
This is an album that hearkens back to the days when an album was a cohesive statement and Mojo rightly deserves to be listened to all the way through, preferably with the volume knob in the upper reaches. Kicking things off is “Jefferson Jericho Blues”, a breezy vamped-up tale of Thomas Jefferson’s secret love affair with Sally Hemmings. Moving along at a brisk three-and-a-half minutes, the song serves as a warm-up, a chance for the band to stretch and let loose on the instruments in the hopes that everything sounds good and in tune. Everything delivers nicely as Tench’s piano saddles up to a harmonica/guitar groove, while the bass and drums lock in step behind. Petty also gives his vocals a nice workout as he relates Jefferson’s secret longings to those of the everyman, who struggles to keep secrets from getting too big.
All throughout, Campbell’s guitar announces itself with a presence, and leads into the album’s second track and first single, “First Flash of Freedom”. After a raucous opening 45 seconds, the band takes things down a notch and drops into Grateful Dead mode, as Petty dishes hippie nuggets like, “Love it is hard, like an overdue train/We felt so much more than our hearts could explain”. The song ambles along for nearly seven perfect minutes playing out like a lost track from the Winterland Ballroom circa 1972. If you see Petty this summer on his ambitious U.S. Tour, watch for this to be the centerpiece of the night’s set. Comparisons to the Grateful Dead pop up throughout the album as Petty plays the role of Jerry Garcia, peppering his lyrics with mysticism and benevolence while the band wails on around him with a wall of sound designed to get the crowds/listeners up on their feet and into full dancing mode.
This theme is best illustrated in “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove”, one of the best tracks on the record that tells the tale of a hazy road-trip taken in a “buddy’s old defender”. Petty plays the weary traveler, grudgingly saddling up with some “motel maids”, one of which is “kinda cute, if a little past her prime”, and tolerating aimless sermons from pseudo preachers in order to score some much needed road “supplies”. Throughout the track, Tench’s piano keystrokes echo across the song like rain on the windows of the aforementioned “defender” and mimic the work done by The Dead’s cast of stellar keyboardists. Campbell keeps his electric notes restrained and subdued and gives Petty room to tell the story, only popping up now and then to serve notice. In all, it is a perfect summation of the talents possessed by this band and reinforces the vibe and purpose of the album as a whole.
Comparisons aside, this band is simply too talented and decorated in its own right to be pigeonholed. Surprises and variety are littered throughout, from the bluesy shuffles of “Candy” and “Let Yourself Go” to the roadhouse rock of “Takin’ My Time” and “Lover’s Touch”. In “U.S. 41”, Petty and company put on their Robert Johnson hats and spin a tale of hard work and bad luck right of the southern blues and Depression era playbook. Later, in “Don’t Pull Me Over”, a reggae vibe plays over the narrator’s pleas to the cops to simply be left alone to get on with his life. “Don’t pull me over/Let me pass on by/Don’t pull me over/Should be legalized”. A nice, not so subtle reference to America’s favorite cash crop goes well with the band’s vibe on Mojo. And finally, if you want some straight ahead rock and roll in the vein of past nuggets like “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “Refugee”, then you can’t get much better than Petty raging against the one who has done him wrong in “I Should Have Known It” as the band thrashes home the point with squalls of electric guitar, squealing keyboards, pounding bass and heavy-handed drumming. Campbell’s guitar rocks so hard that the band should be named Mike Campbell & The Heartbreakers for this one.
So, it may have taken some time, but this summer we are better off for the wait. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers are back and have delivered us 15 tracks of rock and roll splendor. Return the favor, buy the album and go see them live when they pass through your town. Legends like these can’t rock out forever.