Tom Petty has said of Wildflowers, the 1994 solo album he cut with Rick Rubin that is arguably the high water mark of his 34 years of record making, that he spent two years trying to make it sound like the album was done in a weekend. No such shell game with Mojo, Petty’s latest album with the Heartbreakers and first since 2002′s The Last DJ. Each of the album’s 15 tracks was recorded in a day (liner notes tell you exactly what day), with the band playing together live and Petty singing along, all straight to tape. A couple of minor overdubs aside, you’re hearing it pretty much how it went down in their tricked-out rehearsal space. (This from a band that very likely spent an entire day dicking around with producer Jimmy Iovine and engineer Shelly Yakus to achieve that fat snare-drum sound on Damn The Torpedoes.) Of course, the pace at which an album’s songs are recorded isn’t a mark of quality. But the urgency and manner with which Petty and the Heartbreakers laid down these tunes goes a long way toward defining what Mojo is—just as much as the album’s blues/R&B/roots-steeped tenor.
Mojo is certainly not the jangling Heartbreakers that put their songs over with harmonies and pop sensibilities learned from the Beatles and Byrds. There’s nary a harmony vocal or anything resembling a classic Petty hook on the record. This is something different. It’s extremely skilled spontaneity. Something Petty has surely been trying to bring out of the Heartbreakers on record for a long time, perhaps as far back as when they were walking a tightrope nightly behind Bob Dylan in the ’80s. And now, grizzled vets of almost 60, unencumbered by commercial concerns, completely able to write their own ticket knowing they’ll never play to a half-empty house, Petty and his crew have gone and made that record.
Throughout Mojo, Petty frequently channels the laid-back, low-maintenance vibe of Mudcrutch, his swampy early-’70s band with original Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench that he reformed for a great album and short tour in 2008. He does it best in a mellow gem of a road song called “The Trip To Pirate’s Cove,” which drifts along on Tench’s “Riders On The Storm”-like electric-piano part and Petty’s succinct character distillations (“She was a part of my heart/Now she’s just a line in my face”). If “Runnin’ Down A Dream” was a highway jam meant for the interstate, “Pirate’s Cove” is built for a lazy nighttime cruise on the Pacific Coast Highway. Even when they’re playing slow, lurching Chicago blues, like on “Takin’ My Time,” the Heartbreakers’ role on Mojo comes across as anything but laid-back. Last year’s Live Anthology boxed set showcased them as a versatile and accomplished combo. True players that bring the best out of Petty’s songs, especially live. And in Mojo’s basically live setting, they shine. They’re applying what they learned playing four sets a night 40 years ago, working out all the knowledge gleaned from those Mike Bloomfield, Yardbirds and J.J. Cale records.
And did I mention Mojo is an electrifying showcase for Campbell’s lead guitar, quite possibly the most under-appreciated commodity in the history of rock ‘n’ roll? There’s a precision and depth to his playing that you might not expect to find on a record made in such a hit-it-and-quit-it fashion. One of Mojo‘s standout tracks, “Running Man’s Bible,” smolders on the strength of Campbell’s responses to Petty’s declarations of survival (“I took on my father and I’m still walking/Took on all comers in some shape or form”). Sometimes his responses take the form of rapid-fire licks, other times muted bursts of quarter-notes. It never feels like too much or that it’s not enough. It’s the perfect compliment to a great song. The same can be said of Campbell’s playing on swirling, seven-minute jam “First Flash Of Freedom.” Over Steve Ferrone’s steady swing, Campbell wraps curly arpeggios and trippy runs around Petty’s woozy melody in a song that serves as a reminder that the band grew up just a few hours south of the Allman Brothers’ home turf in Macon, Ga.
These aforementioned tracks, along with loosey-goosey R&B numbers “Let Yourself Go” and “Candy,” account for Mojo’s best moments. That’s six songs. Four, maybe five, more tracks that come close to reaching those heights (the swirling blues of “Good Enough” and the delicate “Something Good Coming” would make my short list) would have amounted to an excellent album. Petty, though, felt compelled to make Mojo a 15-song album. So the record loses some of its, ahem, mojo in spots, bogged down by tracks that are more vibe than song (“I Should Have Known It,” “Lover’s Touch”) and fairly throwaway (“No Reason To Cry”). These slow spots aren’t enough to totally derail things; they’re just lulls. Because by reaching way back to their roots, by doing what they do best—playing as a band—and by making a record that sounds like no record they’ve made before, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers have come up with their most vital record in years.