Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Mojo
It’s taken me a while to really reflect on how I feel about this album. Like most nowadays, it was trickle-fed into our lives with the release of a few preview tracks and a free streaming online before actual physical release. No long do we tear off the shrinkwrap with no idea what’s inside; instead, we’ve heard the highlights already on YouTube, and to be honest that’s where the problem lies with Mojo. Take away the three songs I’d already heard and it feels like an awful lot of filler.
First, a little background. Full Moon Fever is a part of the fabric of my childhood; released in 1990 and, along with, bizarrely enough, The Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith, it forms the soundtrack to my earliest memories. I am reliably informed that, aged 3, I used to jump up and down when “Running Down a Dream” came on. In much the same way (and with probably just as much jumping up and down) TP&THB are a part of the fabric of America having written songs that are ingrained in the collective folk memory of two generations.
My re-embracing of that album and exploration of the rest of Petty’s oeuvre was sparked partly by an encounter, on Navy Pier in Chicago IL, with a (uniquely American, I believe) phenomenon known as Live Band Karaoke. This is roughly what it sounds like (a real live band of actual musicians just waiting for you to become their lead singer for three-and-a-half minutes), and is so much cooler than actual karaoke that I was persuaded to give it a try. I scanned their song list hopefully, mentally crossing off things I didn’t know, things that were too difficult and soon arrived at “Free Fallin’”. It’s a three chord song with no middle-eight, just three verses and a great many repetitive choruses, practically made for singing a long to. I didn’t know it well, but with a little cajoling it seemed I was singing it anyway.
I’m gonna glide down over Mulholland
I’m gonna write her name in the sky
I wanna freefall out into nothing
I’m gonna leave this world for a while
There began a process of reacquantance and new appreciation of TP&THB that will only be complete when they eventually unveil European tour dates sometime next year.
To Mojo, then. The highlights are very good. In what ought to be the twilight of a 30-year career penning songs that capture the essence of the nation, Petty has no right to make a record that sounds so fresh, so much like six young men in a garage (as opposed to six wealthy, overweight men in a luxurious studio in the hills above Los Angeles). Strange, then, that it sounds like those six men really, really want to be Led Zeppelin.
No more 90s strum-along jangly balladry like “Free Fallin’” or “Learning To Fly”; the Heartbreakers have got the blues. Huge, meaty slabs of Zep/Yardbirds-esque riffing fly from the guitars of Petty and Mike Campbell, who sounds remarkably Page-like on “Good Enough”.
It’s an incomprehensible move on their part; for a band that has shown no more understanding of the blues than every rock’n’roll band has to suddenly decide it’s going to have harmonica solos is at best bizarre and at worst ill-advised. Petty has been vocal in interviews, describing how he wrote the songs with the band in mind. One cannot help but wonder if it was this band or some mythical blues-rock collective; able as Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell et al are at aping the genre, it isn’t their natural territory.
At its best, Mojo is brilliant, an inspired return to form by a legendary outfit still at the top of their game. At other times, it is bafflingly mediocre, usually when exploring blind alleys of Grateful Dead-esque jamming or Zep-aping blues-rock. “Should Have Known It” is hugely satisfying, “Good Enough”, “First Flash of Freedom” and “Running Man’s Bible” can all stand proud among Petty’s back catalogue, but the album is too long and filled with nonentities like “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove”, a rambling 7-minute echo-drenched piece of soporific pseudopsychedilia, and “Don’t Pull Me Over”, an embarrassing cod-reggae pothead anthem.
The quality of the Heartbreakers’ musicianship shines through regardless, glossing over any potential stylistic blind alleys with the sheer competence of their delivery. And in the end, like most other TP&THB albums Mojo will be raided for the four good songs, which will graduate to the band’s live setlist. The rest will be forgotten and, as the last chorus of “American Girl”, “You Wreck Me” or “I Won’t Back Down” cascades over another great amphitheatre somewhere in Middle America, the sound of one of the great rock’n’roll bands will rise up once more and, swept along by that wave, it won’t really matter.