Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Reprise, 2010

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


“A new album from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers”—these words have been met with anticipation from this reviewer for more than 30 years now. And yet, I didn’t necessarily expect to review this one when I picked it up, inasmuch as my colleague Mark Millan had already beaten me to the punch with his rave review. As a result, I set about listening to Mojo with nothing in mind other than simply enjoying it—and promptly found myself being taken somewhere completely unexpected by the music. Bear with me a moment while I explain…

One of the things that I personally have always found puzzling about other writers’ descriptions of progressive rock music is when they talk about it being blues-based. This is probably a result of my blues tastes running to the earthier, grittier end of the blues spectrum, stuff like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, or the hard blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan or Gary Moore—and my taste in prog tending toward the airier, more melodic end of that particular genre, as represented by bands like Yes or Spock’s Beard, or at times Genesis or Big Big Train. I’ve just never really comprehended the oft-cited connection between the blues and prog.

One of the last places I would have expected to isolate and identify that connection is on a Tom Petty album… but here we are. Petty has spent 35 years now in a pretty consistent groove; he plays Byrds-influenced classic rock, melody-rich guitars and organs populating four-minute odes to women and road trips. Yes, he’s occasionally adapted his music to the times, adopting a bit of punk attitude in the late 70s and using more synthesizers than Hammond organ in the mid-80s, but in every other respect his output has been remarkably consistent—until now.

Mojo is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers—Mike Campbell (lead guitar), Benmont Tench (keys), Ron Blair (bass), Steve Ferrone (drums) and Scott Thurston (guitar & harmonica)—playing the blues. So they have declared, and the description is accurate as far as it goes, but there’s so much more here.  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The rather declarative opening statement “Jefferson Jericho Blues,” with its howling harmonica and stomping swamp-boogie beat, sets the stage for the rest of the album expertly. That said, “Jefferson” in no way prepared me for the dreamy, proggy instrumental opening of sophomore track ”First Flash Of Freedom,” a 1:15 sequence that sounds like an outtake from The Yes Album. “First Flash”—which extends a languorous seven minutes—is unlike anything the band has ever recorded before.  It’s distinctly bluesy in its use of Hammond organ and weepy guitar solos, but also distinctly proggy in its embrace of the sort of expansive, lyrical quality to the music that I associate with Yes. This song was a revelation to me; forty years on in my personal musical appreciation society, I finally “got” a connection I’d been reading about for almost that long.

The connection pops up again in the opening chords of “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove,” a dreamy travelogue of a couple of scruffy rogues whose nimble guitar ruminations have a distinctly David Gilmour feel to them, while inhabiting what is definitely a blues tune. In between comes one of the album’s highlights, the steady, thrumming “Running Man’s Bible,” featuring one of Petty’s wisest mid-life lyrics and some of the inimitable Tench’s finest organ work ever.

From that strong opening, recent Petty efforts have trained us to expect a drop-off in quality, but on Mojo it never comes. “Candy” is a shuffle rich with earthy charm… “No Reason To Cry” is a sweetly soaring country-blues... and then you get to “I Should Have Known It” and are reminded—forcefully—that Led Zeppelin was first and foremost an electrified blues band.  With a tactical warhead of a guitar riff that would have been right at home on Led Zeppelin II, this tune finds Campbell unleashed like never before, even giving his initial solo the sort of controlled aggression and distortion-fed majesty you associate with early ’70s Jimmy Page, before letting loose with an absolutely blistering outro solo.  Wowza.

The rest comes in its own time, never rushed, ever confident. The boys delve into acoustic back-porch blues with “U.S. 41,” offer another Zeppelin-esque slow-burner with “Takin’ My Time,” channel Booker T. & the MG’s on the Stax-ified chugger “Let Yourself Go,” tip their cap to Bob Marley on the reggae-blues “Don’t Pull Me Over,” hark back their 1976 self-titled debut with the sparse, slinky “Lover’s Touch,” couch messages in backdrops sharp and gentle on “High In The Morning” and “Something Good Coming,” and deliver a big finish with the slow-and-steady wailer of a closer “Good Enough.”

The Heartbreakers were already deservedly regarded as one of the great backing bands in rock history, and they’ve obviously all been students of the blues throughout their careers.  That gives them a great feel for this music coming in; add to that some of the finer compositions of Petty’s somewhat uneven latter-day repertoire and you have a sublimely successful experiment. Mojo is full of joys large and small, both dependably entertaining and at times much more, and beyond a doubt the best album Petty has issued in more than 20 years. 

Rating: B+

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