By Chris Moore:
RATING: 4 / 5 stars (with “Candy” & “Takin’ My Time”); 4.5 / 5 stars (without)
There is simply no mistaking a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song.
When you hear a single like “Refugee” or “Free Fallin'” on the radio, or in shuffle mode, or in a fast food restaurant, or wherever you may be, the band is recognizable. Even if something more obscure comes on, say a recent track like “You and Me,” there is no need to call up your Shazam app; there is no mistaking Petty’s distinct nasal twang or Mike Campbell’s hook-laced, jangly guitars. At worst, they sound like a Byrds cover band fronted by a Bob Dylan impersonator.
At best — and, most often — they are one of the greatest American rock bands of all time.
What does all this have to do with Mojo?
Simply put, Mojo represents a purposeful breakdown (pun intended) of the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers formula. This record finds the band more concerned with experimentation via these blues influenced performances, and as such, the individual members of the band, more than on any other release, serve integral roles in the instrumental soundscapes. Even on “U.S. 41,” perhaps the most stripped down of tracks, each band member has an interesting, shifting role as the song unfolds. Campbell’s Kay Jimmy Reed Model guitar joins forces with Scott Thurston’s harmonica to rip schizophrenically through the rhythm section. Benmont Tench switches temporarily to his Tremolo Steinway, relegating himself largely to the background and yet playing a key role in advancing the serious undertones of the words.
Here, as on all the tracks, Petty’s lead vocal is an instrument unto itself, alternating between creaking and crooning where appropriate.
Later, Campbell’s lead guitar on the standout “Running Man’s Bible” acts more as a backup vocal, answering each of Petty’s lines with a lick here, a riff there. This is one of their best duets, and their energy on the choruses calls to mind the fact that this pair has been on the proverbial road for what is rapidly approaching four decades.
When I read in one article that Mojo was being recorded with a jam band mentality, I faltered in my enthusiasm. When another article name-dropped the Allman brothers, I outright grimaced. The Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers I love have always, regardless of what phase they were in, stood for purposeful rock music. What I mean by this is that they have consistently eschewed the instrumental self-indulgence that regularly pushes tracks by bands like the Allman brothers into the double digit minute range. The songs on their debut self-titled release rarely cracked the three minute mark; on the first half, only one track did: “The Wild One, Forever,” clocking in at a whopping 3:01.
In short, I feared that looming self-indulgence, a bug that has bitten many a great band.
Instead of a collection of lengthy, live band jams, Mojo instead turned out to be a cohesive trek through a myriad of American milieu. In many ways, this new record has more to do with their first two records than their most recent ones. This is not at all to say that they’ve regressed to the simpler arrangements of You’re Gonna Get It! that earned them initial success; this is less a return than a romp through stomping grounds as a more mature, honed group of artists.
Certainly, even the most upbeat tracks on Mojo lack that in-your-face, eager-to-impress youthful energy that characterized their early songs, numbers like “When the Time Comes,” “Listen to Her Heart,” and “American Girl.”
Yet, at the same time, those early tracks lacked the electric mayhem of “Good Enough,” the sinister sneers and downbeats of songs like “I Should Have Known It,” and the beautiful nuances of tracks such as “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove.”
The two songs that leave me aweless are “Candy” and “Takin’ My Time,” the former a snoozer of a blues standard and the latter a lyrically boring, tiring exercise in marching across the speakers. Each exceeds four minutes in length, and my patience in less than half that. (Now, the iTunes bonus track “Little Girl Blues,” that’s a song I can get behind, perhaps even as an addition to the album proper.)
Nix these two tracks and this becomes a tightly sequenced thirteen track album.
Despite stretching out instrumentally, many tracks hint at riffs in all the right places, as if to remind the listener that this format is a conscious decision, as opposed to a lack of ability to write songs like they once did. The lyrics certainly don’t suffer in this venture, “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove” being one of the best ballads the band has ever released and “Good Enough” being one of the best vignettes in their catalog, saying so little yet so much.
Thematically, Mojo is a loose but thoughtfully assembled exploration of American society, particularly the ethics and mores that have shaped our nation over the past hundred years. The concept is not nearly as clearly defined as on The Last DJ, but it is present all the same: in the “mouths to feed” and preferred isolation of “Don’t Pull Me Over,” the “boss man” and the “wages” and the “food on the table” in “U.S. 41”, and, of course, the sin, glory, and freedom in “First Flash of Freedom.”
“Jefferson Jericho Blues” places us at the precipice, in the mind of a man who knows what is right yet “just can’t let go” of what feels better. This conflict recurs in “High in the Morning,” with a bottle that belongs to the devil and a woman who belongs to the captain. If these songs can’t be applied as metaphors for individuals in our society, as well as our nation as a whole, then what can?
In these and so many other ways, Mojo is a success. It may not be comprised of the tightly packaged pop gems we’ve come to expect of the band, but it is still very much a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album, and, after eight long years, a strong addition to their considerable catalog.