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Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers “Mojo” Review

Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: , .

It was once said that “the longer you live, the better you get.” In recording Mojo, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers took to the studio in a way they hadn’t done before (at least to such an extent); not only did the group go into recording the album with an entirely blank canvas—the decision was made to go into Mojowithout any demos in hand—but much of the album was essentially recorded live: no headphones, each member facing each other while they played out their ideas. Speaking to Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, Petty shed some light on the process, “This is a record we couldn’t have made in the ’70s and ’80s because we weren’t really good enough as musicians.” He continued, “We’re using our age as a plus in this sense, in that we’ve become better musicians.” It would seem that Petty would agree with the statement of aging gracefully, if only in terms of he and his band’s musical evolution. And if Mojo is the evidence that we have to either confirm or deny whether Petty and the Heartbreakers have gotten better or worse with age, it would seem wholeheartedly irrational to argue the latter.

In 2006 Tom Petty released his third solo album, and first in over a decade, Highway Companion. That same year a number of other veteran acts (Young, Springsteen, the Who, Frampton, John, Meat Loaf, etc.) joined Petty in releasing new material, though the majority of the releases proved the initial quote to have plenty of exceptions. It’s fitting that those aforementioned words were muttered by Bob Dylan as he also released an album in 2006 (Modern Times); one that serves up even more evidence supporting the quote. While Highway Companion was expectedly strong, the album eventually claimed spots on a myriad of year end lists, it doesn’t resonate in the same way as Mojo; which might, once again, relate to Bob Dylan. Further along in his interview with Kot, Petty revealed the prime influence on Mojo, “For the last 10, 11 years, I’ve been immersed in blues. That’s what I listen to all the time and we got caught up in that vibe on this record.” It might be a bit of a stretch, but Dylan’s last two albums (or at least the last two albums that weren’t nut-bar crazy) also cracked at the seams with the blues. Putting the similarities to Dylan and the focus on the blues aside for a moment however, the album actually does have its fair share of tracks that sound like the Heartbreakers of old; even if Mojo‘s opening song is titled “Jefferson Jericho Blues.”

“First Flash of Freedom” introduces itself in a truly familiar style: understated guitars lurk in the background as the rhythm section accompanies Petty’s calm vocals. An echo-laced solo eventually breaks out, breezing by so effortlessly that it’s easy to overlook the skill behind it. “The Trip To Pirate’s Cove” is introduced with a bluesy guitar, but relaxes on that front, settling into a slow tempo that allows each of the band’s players to allow their instruments to breathe. “No Reason To Cry” follows a similar slow pace, but it highlights one of the most enjoyable aspects of Petty’s songs: they can be emotional without being dreary, adding a realistic aspect to the body of the theme without having to explicitly make the song sound autobiographical. One of the three songs initially released through the Mojo music video blast, “Something Good Coming” contrasts the touching backdrop of the slow ballad with an overwhelming feeling of hopefulness, “I need some time, get my life on track/I know that look on your face/But there’s somethin’ lucky about this place/And there’s somethin’ good comin’/For you and me/Somethin’ good comin’, there has to be.” All in all, this is definitely Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at their best.

Consistency aside however, there are a few small detours on the record. Lighthearted in its lyrics and instrumentation, “Candy” is a bit of a predictable throwback; it’s not a bad song, but it doesn’t really add much in comparison to the rest of the record—why have ground beef when you could have filet mignon instead, right? “Don’t Pull Me Over” has mild reggae overtones, but doesn’t sound entirely out of place; the slow groove sounds more like Clapton than Marley with Petty lyrically wading through the music, “Don’t pull me over, Mr. Police Man.” That said, Mojo‘s focus is clear: Petty’s talkin’ ’bout the blues.

“Running Man’s Bible” offers a smattering of tangled guitars before leaning on Petty’s croon as well Ron Blair’s bass—the song continues by teetering between rock and blues throughout its chorus and verses. “I Should Have Known It”—another of the records first tracks to be unveiled—is a gritty guitar romp that weaves Petty’s raspy wail within the boggy sounds of bottleneck slides and a dense rhythm. The song eventually runs head first into a wildly entertaining solo that eventually reincorporates the entire band; the song is truly one of the best stompers from the Heartbreakers in a long time. “U.S. 41″ is a gritty deep-south blues track that recalls a story of a troubled existence set to the sounds of rambling guitar, harmonica, and a floor-stomping beat. “Takin’ My Time” has a rumbling beat that lends the impression of something of a Chicago-blues band far more than that of a seasoned rock group. “Let Yourself Go,” “Lover’s Touch” and “Good Enough” only go to further showcase the deep influence that seeps out of the entire album: It’s interesting how a slight detour seems so interesting after such a long time spent following a relatively similar musical style—it could have to do with the blues being something of a universal among music listeners, or maybe it’s simply because Petty and the Heartbreakers have infused the style with their sound so effectively.

All things considered, Mojo is still a rock album though—very much so, in fact—and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are still a rock band. It just so happens that in this instance the record’s influence is worn on the band’s collective sleeve, lending a unique angle to the group’s classic sound. It might work for you, it might not, but as Petty concluded in his interview with Kot, the band isn’t willing to spin its wheels for the sake of doing so, and will go where they want regardless of whether or not fans want to hear “Learning to Fly” again for the millionth time: “We will not turn into a jukebox.” Enough said.