Here’s a prediction: Tom Petty’s new Mojo album will eventually by hailed as one of his brilliant moments; it’s the album where Petty let the band loose to play modern blues – filtered through, and kept familiar, by the Florida nasal twang of the frontman.
Fuck radio. That’s what Petty must have said. Are classic rock radio stations abuzz with anticipation of playing a new Tom Petty song? Maybe a couple. Maybe some AAA and Americana stations. And probably all the cool guys with the hour-long weekly radio shows on non-commercial stations will dig it. But Petty is almost 60 years old. Hit singles are in the past, even for a guy who kept MTV playing videos for about five years longer than they might have without his great pop songs and endless string of compelling (or at least entertaining) videos.
What Tom Petty has done has said “Screw all of ya. Me and the boys feels like making this kind of album”. And what “this” kind of album became was a logical followup to the Mudcrutch record that Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench made two years ago with the two original members of a band that would become the Heartbreakers after moving to LA.
That album was a swampy, bluesy, stretched-out rock record. So is Mojo, if you replace the sound of the Everglades with the sound of Chess Records.
The title of album opener “Jefferson Jericho Blues” provides the obvious style clue. The record’s sound leans on Campbell’s guitar lines and Tench’s piano and organ. The vibe is Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited with better production.
There are nuggets that shine. “Candy” is a fun piece of CCR confection; “US 41″ a Muddy Waters homage; and ‘Let Yourself Go” has a sound that reminds of the Doors, of all things.
“High in the Morning” is one of the best examples on the record of Campbell’s stinging-yet-grounded lead guitar attack. If listeners hadn’t picked up on it after all these years, Mojo soundly and deservedly becomes an example of why Campbell is one of the best rock and roll guitarists. Ever.
“The Trip to Pirate’s Cove” – unwieldy title nonwithstanding – is a slice of familiar Petty, echoing “Into the Great Wide Open” in tempo and delivery. Yet in this context, it feels weak. The intensity of the other tracks and the emphasis on unhinged rock and blues playing make his pop style sound misplaced.
Still, it is the Petty voice – the tone from those great pop/rock songs – that lends the familiarity to bind the bundle of songs. We go for the ride with Petty because we trust him as a driver. Sure, he’s driven perilously close to the shoulder a few times in the past decade (some would say into the ditch with The Last DJ), but I still trust Tom. And with this record, he seems to have stopped railing against what can’t be changed, and instead spent time pondering his own options, had faith in his band, and turned them up loud.
The choice to do what he wants, musically, has been earned. And were it not for the artistic freedom, this album may have never been made by Petty. He loosened the grip on the band, may have smoked a little weed, and then told the boys to play what felt right. We may not recognize it now, but Mojo may prove to be one of his best.