Critic’s pick: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, ‘Mojo’
By Walter Tunis
Lexington Herald-Leader — Tuesday, June 15, 2010
The title to Tom Petty’s first Heartbreakers album in eight years suggests a bluesy affair. And in places, Mojo becomes one. Mostly, though, this is a record about groove. A lot of groove.
On the rootsy side, Mojo revels in a country-blues shuffle that opens out into the harp-driven, slide-savvy, Howlin Wolf-inspired U.S. 41. Then there is the churchy slow blues of Lover’s Touch, which owes as much to the organ and Rhodes piano colors of veteran Heartbreaker Benmont Tench as to Petty himself.
But Mojo is sleek and reserved in its rhythmic flow. Early into the album, two tunes — First Flash of Freedom and Running Man’s Bible — settle into light, neo-jazzy grooves that, together, stretch on for nearly 13 summery minutes. Freedom, a fanciful yarn of romantic discovery, works off a light, minor-key riff that is efficient and steadfast. Bible, a “glory and survival” travelogue, is more overtly rock ‘n’ roll, but its groove is luxuriant and relaxed, a nod to British blues guitar great Peter Green.
Musically, the formula stays put for Mojo’s 66-minute run. Riffs and grooves, often very simple, make up the bulk of the song structures as styles shift around them. Don’t Pull Me Over operates with a studied pop-reggae rhythm. Let Yourself Go is all glistening boogie. Candy is bouncing blues with a light pop sheen. In each case, the groove carries the tune, wrapping lightly around — and eventually propelling — Petty’s reedy, nasally narration.
Pretty remains an artful storyteller as well. Inevitably, age creeps into these songs. “Could be when you get sad your memory slips,” Petty sings to himself in the lament No Reason to Cry. The Trip to Pirate’s Cove, a tale of misadventure told very much in the past tense, is more severe (“She was a part of my heart, now she’s just a line on my face”). But the melodies, the mood and those ever-present grooves roll steadily along.
And yes, Mojo gets its hands a little dirty, too. The single I Should Have Known It is a freight train of swampy guitar riffs, and the album-opening Jefferson Jericho Blues repeats its blues-shuffle lick like a mantra.
Mojo steers far from the ’70s-style Stones/Byrds radio rock of Damn the Torpedoes and the leaner Americana spirit of 1995’s Wildflowers (the latter being, technically, a Petty solo work). But it’s also miles from the glossy excess of Into the Great Wide Open that put the Heartbreakers on auto-pilot in the early ’90s. Mojo is the sound of a prime American band weathering the years, flexing its still-vital musical ingenuity and paying homage to the almighty groove.