« | Main | Genius Is As Genius Does - Another Terrifying Tale From The 70's by Brian Cullman »

Mojo Uprising.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers




By Richard Skanse

Well, here’s a mixed bag for ya: an absolute, stone-cold killer of a Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album, hitched to arguably the laziest batch of songs Petty has ever committed to disc. Ultimately, it all balances out in Mojo’s favor, with the visceral thrill of the performances outweighing any disappointment over the half-baked melodies — though the latter may still keep casual fans at bay and challenge even seasoned Petty devotees. Take it from this unabashed, err, Petty-phile, who’s been known to swear by the merits of such underrated, late-period gems as 1996’s She’s the One soundtrack, 1999’s epic Echo and even 2002’s cantankerous The Last DJ: learning to outright love Mojo can take some serious patience. And even after a month of intense listening, I’m still not quite there yet. But slowly but surely, I’ve grown to like it a lot.

Coming eight years after Petty’s last studio record with the Hearbreakers (The Last DJ) and just six months after the sprawling Live Anthology, Mojo delivers on the primal promise of its name in spades. Described by Petty as “more like a Polaroid than a painting,” it is very much a candid snapshot of a great American rock band flat out having a blast by itself and for itself in the no-pressure environment of a home studio. Had nobody been around to punch record, well, bummer — but it’s doubtful any of the players would have lost any sleep over the matter. When musicians of this caliber click together this naturally after playing together this long, one day’s jam is probably going to be just good as the next, and that sense of ultra confidence imbues the performances here with a swagger and groove that feels disarmingly casual and oftentimes downright relaxed. Curiously, Mojo rarely outright rocks; like a grizzly in its own element, it rather lopes about at a lazy, unhurried pace — sometimes playful (“Candy,” “Let Yourself Go”), other times in what feels like a sleepwalking stupor (the interminably long “First Flash of Freedom”). But there’s always a promise of power there, and when it finally rears its head and lashes out with teeth and claws — most prominently on the commanding lead single, a ferocious stomper called “I Should Have Known It” — well, look out.

Mojo’s bearish heft and gait is a team effort, but those teeth and claws belong almost exclusively to guitarist Mike Campbell. Much has already been made of Campbell’s heightened presence on the album, almost to the extent of suggesting that he’s been locked in a pumpkin and hasn’t been heard from much since nailing “Breakdown” back in ’76. The aforementioned Live Anthology certainly proves otherwise, as does Echo and, more recently, 2008’s eponymous Mudcrutch album, which found Campbell, Petty and Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench reconnecting with two old Florida pals (guitarist Tom Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh) just for kicks. No, Campbell’s chops have never been any kind of secret. For as long as Petty’s been making records, Campbell’s been his go-to guitar man and co-writer, even on his three solo albums when the rest of the Heartbreakers were used sparingly or not at all, and he’s always left a significant mark. All that said, though, there’s no denying the MVP ballast of his fat, fearsome Les Paul from one end of Mojo to the other. A little more of the Jimmy Page-unleashed fury displayed on “I Should Have Known It” would have been welcome, but there’s nearly as much explosive power packed into much more economical bursts throughout the lurching “Takin’ My Time,” and his swirling, soaring soloing throughout the closing “Good Enough” is, in a woefully insufficient word, magnificent.

Campbell’s performance sets a high bar on Mojo, and the rest of the Heartbreakers — Tench, bassist Ron Blair, harmonica player/guitarist Scott Thurston and drummer Steve Ferrone — all rise to the occasion. So too does Petty — at least as a bandmember. Cast here as singer and nominal leader of the Heartbreakers, he plays his part with conviction but is mostly just along for the ride, as carefree as a golden Lab wagging his tongue and tail in the wind from the back of a pickup barreling down a country road. Vocally, he matches Campbell’s guitar snarl for snarl on “I Should Have Known It,” and his droll delivery of “Candy” drips with wry Southern charisma. But with only one very noteworthy exception, Petty the songwriter seems to have happily — and quite willfully — phoned this one in. Admittedly, there are instances here where the tossed-off nature of his writing (both lyrically and melodically speaking) serves the spirit of the moment, as on the loose and limber “Let Yourself Go” and the album-opening “Jefferson Jericho Blues,” which wiffs it on the history-lesson front but is too damn fun to nitpick. Not so, though, the following “First Flash of Freedom,” a turgid tar pit of Grateful Deadish noodling that rivals Springsteen’s eight-minute “Outlaw Pete” as the most offensive waste of prime rock-record real estate in recent memory. It’s the only song here where even the band, Campbell included, sounds bored stiff.

Fortunately, the gang quickly recovers after that early stumble, with “Running Man’s Bible” and even the hazy “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove” relighting Mojo’s pilot. But even when things get back on track, Petty still stubbornly withholds the album’s one truly transcendent hook until nearly the very end. Aptly titled “Something Good Coming,” the song comes next to last in the 15-track, hour-long cue, but the payoff is exquisite — as devastatingly, wistfully beautiful and wise as anything Petty has ever written. Or his peers, for that matter. A lifetime ago, Petty’s observation about the waiting being the hardest part was delivered with the giddy impatience of excitable young love. Three decades later, the dream’s still worth dreaming, but the spring of hope has slowed to a precious, desperate trickle: “There’s something good comin’/For you and me,” Petty sings with weary but dogged determination, drowning in the album’s most haunting melody, “Somethin’ good comin’/There has to be.”

It’s a hell of a denouement, as much for life as for some rock ’n’ roll record. Sometimes, as with Mojo, you get more passion and perspiration than pure inspiration and satisfaction. But as Petty puts in so succinctly in the final line of the album, that’s “gonna have to be good enough.”


West Texas native Richard Skanse made his bones working at Rolling Stone in the 90's. He spent most of the last decade as Editor of Texas Music magazine, and more recently as Editor of  LoneStarMusic magazine. He's written for many of the usual suspects, and under duress, will admit to a major man-crush on Tom Petty. Or is it Norm?