Growing up, I lived across the street from a middle-aged man who spent most of his free time working on a beautiful old car. He’d tune it up, polish it, polish it some more — and on rare weekends, he’d take it out for a leisurely spin around the neighborhood. I don’t think he ever drove it faster than 25 or 30 miles an hour, and the car was obviously a beauty capable of much more, but he seemed content to let it purr slowly down surface streets. He’d surely tested his limits at some point in the past, and he’d learned to take joy from familiar surroundings, traveled at a reasonable pace.
I thought about that man while listening to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ new album, Mojo. While I freely admit it isn’t a perfect analogy — Petty and his crew have always done their best work on the road — I think it’s mostly appropriate, because this is a songwriter, and a band, whose output over the last 15 years or so has reflected a certain, shall we say, relaxed sensibility that, while far from unpleasant, feels disappointingly lukewarm in comparison to their earlier albums, and Mojo isn’t much different.
Listen, I know it’s unfair to expect an artist to live up to his or her old work. As my colleague Rob Smith put it, “take the new stuff for what it is and listen for the cool shit in the new songs, cuz there’s definitely cool shit to be heard.” And he’s right — with these 15 tracks, Petty and the Heartbreakers restore some of the fire in the belly they’ve been missing for the last 20 years or so, and the album does go a fair sight toward correcting the pallid drift they’ve been on since 1999’s Echo (if not longer). But as it turns out, that says more about the size of the gap between Petty’s classic and latter-day efforts than it does anything about Mojo.
For me, it’s a question of craft. Petty powered his way onto the radio dial offering something new, a sneering distillation of punchy British Invasion songform and sun-baked Southern rock that absorbed classic and contemporary elements with calculated abandon. Petty and the Heartbreakers didn’t just write and record their songs, they filed them into FM daggers. Go back and listen to Petty’s 1993 compilation — the one with a single disc and 18 tracks. That isn’t an album, it’s a fucking tackle box — not a wasted note, not a beat out of place. Even with a pair of bonus tracks, it’s one of the few best-of collections that deserves to exist, and that’s because Petty was so focused on getting his songs where he wanted them that he was willing to fight to push them there. Remember the famous story of Petty punching a wall in frustration while mixing “Rebels” and breaking his hand? I think if that guy could hear Echo and The Last DJ, he’d kick his own ass.
So yes, Mojo represents an improvement. It starts promisingly, with the desperate harmonica wheeze of “Jefferson Jericho Blues,” and right away you can hear that Mike Campbell was a man unleashed on these sessions; his stinging lead makes the song more than just another half-baked late-period Petty rocker. But just as quickly, the album lets you know it isn’t in any hurry to shift out of second gear, burying a marvelous quicksilver Campbell lead under the sleepy, seven-minute “First Flash of Freedom.” In the years since the much-maligned Into the Great Wide Open, Petty has seemed more comfortable writing grooves than real songs, and “First Flash” is one of many examples of that tendency in action again. The band sews a few chords together and drags them round and round for three, four, five minutes. Petty drawls, sleepy-lidded. The mind wanders. When a track as insubstantial as the happily ambling “Candy” comes as a blessed relief, some mistakes have been made.
And it isn’t like Petty and the Heartbreakers can’t work up a sweat when they feel like it. “I Should Have Known It” is a snarling dog of a song, crowned with Campbell’s sawtoothed guitar; conversely, the dreamlike “Something Good Coming” is the loveliest, most soulful ballad Petty’s written in years. But there’s too much filler in between. The title of the closing track, “Good Enough,” seems to reflect Petty’s approach to the last ten years of his career. Among veteran rock ‘n’ rollers, Petty still navigates his fallow periods more gracefully than most; even an afterthought like the She’s the One soundtrack contains a couple of killer cuts. But for fans hoping for a reminder of the band’s true greatness, Mojo offers more frustrating proof that the waiting is still the hardest part.
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