Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers bring it all back home with their loosest, rawest album album yet, Mojo:

 

Lead guitarist of the Heartbreakers Mike Campbell once stated that their motto as a band in their earlier days was “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” True to form, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers made songs like that which percolated through their first few records. Songs that were constricted but not suffocated, fine tuned into classic diamonds of borderline perfection with all the players getting their increments just right rather than stretching out to explore. An amalgam of jangling chiming guitars, thoughtful organ playing, and an air tight rhythm section. The records were always polished to a nice West Coast sheen, but that wasn’t always what fans saw live with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers which would occasionally be comprised of lengthy improvisation while still playing as in sync as they did on their records. Fans of the smooth veneer of some of the records in their canon may have their scent thrown off the trail in the Southern blues wilderness of their latest record Mojo.

Some of the skeletal structure of this album maybe attributed to Tom Petty’s 2008 side project with his first band Mudcrutch (Which also featured members of the Heartbreakers Mike Campbell on lead guitar and Benmont Tench on keyboards). They released a self-titled album that was dressed up in Southern country temperament blended with the Gainesville bayous. Some of the material that comprised the album would never have made it on a Heartbreakers record like the 9:29 long campfire-wisdom Crazy Horse style jam of “Crystal River”. However, the lengthy sonic workout proved to have much more of a live-in-studio feel which is how a large portion of Mojo was cut. Many of the songs in just one or two takes. Some of that early roots rock dust kicked up during the Mudcrutch sessions seems to have settled on the blueprints of Mojo as well.

Petty & his Heartbreakers fly East from their California Byrds-ian nests and first settle down on the Southside of 1950’s Chicago, blues capital of the world at that point. The opening track “Jefferson Jericho Blues” sets the scene for the rest of the album as Petty and the boys sound like a crack-ace Muddy Waters band in Rollin’ & Tumblin’ fashion. Multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston blows with the fervor of a mid-1960’s Keith Relf harmonica solo from The Yardbirds, and Petty’s best kept secret weapon also finally lets loose in Mike Campbell, his so called “co-captain”. Always one for restricting himself from reaching the true guitar hero virtuoso status like he’s been owed in favor of a more reserved style, he finally grabs that brass ring blending wildfire frenetic guitar breaks and visceral wild abandon solos. The near seven minute “First Flash of Freedom” finds the band in a drastic departure from their classic formula of song-craft. The psychedelic slow burning jam carves its own niche somewhere between the early Allman Brothers Band years as Campbell swoops in and out of that canyon nestling in between the shadows of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts with his carefree guitar grooves. “Running Man’s Bible” is a midnight creep across the countryside as Petty softly sneers “Here’s one to glory and survival/ And stayin’ alive/ It’s the running man’s bible.” as Benmont Tench’s liquid organ riffs offer a blanketing warmth from the uncertainty of the highway. Petty continues down the road till he reaches his destination on “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove”. A lucid rotisserie rotating song that has Petty meeting up with ghosts and pit-stops of his past before leaving them behind in his buddy’s old Defender with the wink of an eye with lines, “I got a friend in Mendocino/ And it’s gettin’ close to harvest time.” Petty and crew dive back into the deep end of the blues with “I Should Have Known It” as Campbell has us salivating with a monolithic Zeppelin-esque riff. Definitely one of the heaviest songs done by the band, a pile-driving rocker cut in the vain of “Honey Bee” as Campbell’s slide-guitar playing screeches with feral intensity before the rest of the band joins in and hits the ground running in a frenzied gallop finale. “U.S. 41” is a marriage of blues and country while “Takin’ My Time” has a sexual bedroom romp as Petty narrates like an old blues shaman unearthed from decades of dust. Another stand out is the wonderful ballad “Something Good Coming”. In an album not particularly full of balladry this one really stands out, because Petty’s always had a knack for crafting very memorable ones. An optimistic stripped down song that combines the sunrise trek of a Pacific Coast highway with a country waltz hospitality as Petty sings “And I’m in for the long run/ Wherever it goes/ Ridin’ the river/ Wherever it goes… There’s somethin’ good comin’/ For you and me/ Somethin’ good comin’/ There has to be.” The album’s closer “Good Enough” is an incendiary dirge as Campbell comes completely unhinged with avalanches of Wah-Wah swirling solos around Tench’s cathedral organ before finally setting his frets ablaze until the album finally slows down and comes to a smoldering stop.

Mojo is the first album Tom Petty has released with the Heartbreakers since 2002’s much maligned (Although greatly underappreciated and underrated) The Last DJ, and it sounds like a band completely comfortable in its own skin. Mojo is largely unlike anything Petty has previously recorded with the Heartbreakers and gives fans who haven’t experienced them yet live a glimpse at that very potential of a great show. It showcases just how good this band can be without being too streamlined or adding very many clicks or whistles or bells in studio tricks. This set of tunes was custom built ready for the road and can definitely stand up against the rest of Petty’s body of work. Tom has seemingly accepted the role as one of rock’s elderly statesman with one the greatest backing bands on the planet by leaning on the shoulders of the legends that created the birthplace rock & roll, the blues. A return to form? Not really, because it’s in different sonic territories that Tom is treading in with this record. Petty shows that he doesn’t have to rely on always recycling his traditional formula. Which in part, is what makes Mojo so good.

1. Jefferson Jericho Blues √

2. First Flash of Freedom √

3. Running Man’s Bible √

4. The Trip to Pirate’s Cove √

5. Candy

6. No Reason to Cry

7. I Should Have Known It √

8. U.S. 41

9. Takin’ My Time

10. Let Yourself Go

11. Don’t Pull Me Over

12. Lover’s Touch

13. High in the Morning

14. Something Good Coming √

15. Good Enough √