Borrowing a visual cue from Wilco’s 2007 Sky Blue Sky album, the interior gatefold shot of Mojo—the first studio album from Petty and his Heartbreakers in seven years—depicts the band in a paste-up of photos, in their carpet-strewn rehearsal/ recording space, holding their vintage instruments. If pictures are worth so many words, this collage tells you that the guys played and recorded together live in this room, with no overdubs, and, for guitar freaks, that the instruments used herein are worthy of great lust (the vintage Les Pauls, Stratocasters, Precision basses, and ES-335s are duly listed in the liner notes).
What the picture doesn’t tell you, the grooves will. Although this isn’t exactly classic Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, for lovers of loose (and expertly played), blues-based rock, Mojo is one of the year’s great albums.
You know a record is at times going to hold tongue in cheek when it blasts off with a Dylan-like shuffle imagining Thomas Jefferson’s lust for Sally Hemings (“Jefferson Jericho Blues”). The American vernacular continues with “First Flash of Freedom,” which slumps into a dreamy, 60s psychedelic vibe worthy of the Dead or Allman Brothers, and takes off on the road with a cheeky ode to survival (“Running Man’s Bible”). The musicians play beautifully throughout, and, given that they’ve been together for thirty-some years, and are considered one of the great live acts, you’ve got to love the casual confidence in their playing.
Lead guitarist Mike Campbell especially gets to shine, and, on a tune such as “Good Enough,” lets fly with a flurry of fiery licks that remain pyrotechnic without ever turning to histrionics. That tune, by the way, is a thickly textured one, with a circular three-note riff that, along with the carnival-creep of Benmont Tench’s Hammond organ, calls to mind John Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” from Abbey Road. “Candy” is a rockabilly outing praising sweets and moonshine over arguably healthier tastes; “U.S. 41” stomps through a blues swamp; “Lover’s Touch” is a slow, seductively dreamy rocker with creamy guitar tones aided by wah-wah and fuzz pedal effects; while “I Should Have Known It” is a fun, sort of blues-skiffle mash-up of Yardbirds, Zeppelin, and the White Stripes. Petty’s voice is consistently in good form, with an almost chameleon- like way of changing color to fit mood and style.
In addition to the lip-smacking instrumental listing, the liner notes also specify the date each song was recorded, many the apparent result of one or just a few takes. And the sonics are downright terrific. Not because they are going to satisfy a list of audiophile criteria, but simply because the recording excellently captures the sound of a well-oiled rock ’n’ roll machine playing together at the height of its talents, with a remarkable freedom and passion. The overall balance is right on, and without spotlighting it captures the gorgeously rich characters and textures of these great vintage instruments, and does so with an unusual lack of the BS and manipulation typically heard from commercial rock releases. This one gets my top recommendation.