Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been one of America’s greatest live bands since their first club tours and opening-act jobs, in 1976 and ’77. Lethal garage-rock modernists with pop-hook savvy, they’ve always had the chops and empathy to make a studio record like Mojo: everybody in one room, going for the master take together and getting it fast. They just took 34 years to work up the nerve.
It was worth the wait. Mojo is dynamite — Petty and the Heartbreakers’ matured return to the elementary fury of their first golden-twang era, capped by 1981’s Hard Promises. The performances are natural knockouts — cocksure grooves, pithy knife-play guitars and little overdub fuss — worked up, then nailed, some on the first full take, at the band’s suburban Los Angeles rehearsal space. Petty can’t help stressing the authenticity here. The credits include the make and vintage of every instrument and the exact tracking date of each song. That’s Petty playing a 1964 Gibson ES-335 guitar and lead guitarist Mike Campbell wielding his steady weapon, a ’59 Les Paul Sunburst, on April 28th of last year, in the opening number, “Jefferson Jericho Blues.”
That’s almost too much detail, a distraction from what actually makes the song work: drummer Steve Ferrone and bassist Ron Blair’s blues-train shuffle; Campbell’s snarling breaks; the way Scott Thurston’s harp dogs the guitars, Little Walter-style, the whole way. “I’m writing it for the band to play,” Petty told us last fall, referring to the songs he was bringing to the sessions.
That’s just how they sound, like well-oiled treble-armored vehicles built for bruising, driven with all hands on the wheel: “Takin’ My Time,” with its grinding-fuzz bridge; the heavy Yardbirds-style rave-up “I Should Have Known It”; the closer, “Good Enough,” a compound storm of slow-blues Led Zeppelin and the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” “Love hit us hard/Like an overdue train,” Petty drawls in the oceanic waltz “First Flash of Freedom,” a setup for the real psychedelic wham of the exultant Jerry Garcia-joins-the-Allman Brothers guitars and the meaty, rippled sweep of Benmont Tench’s organ break.
Petty surely didn’t plan it that way, but Mojo arrives with instructive synchronicity, on the heels of the Rolling Stones’ reissued Exile on Main Street. The records have a lot in common: the double-LP length and garage-comrade swing; the constant motion in the lyrics, out of trouble and blown chances toward something that, in the distance, looks like refuge. “I see with the eyes of somethin’ wounded/Somethin’ still standing after the storm,” Petty sings over the dark gallop and skidding guitars in “Running Man’s Bible.”
But also like Exile, Mojo comes with a creeping grip in its rumble, sly, intuitive details that snag you at every pass, like Tench’s raindrop accents on electric piano in the road-trip reverie “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove” or the extra beat of smoldering silence before the chorus line in “Lover’s Touch.” You don’t get that kind of cool with Pro Tools and Auto-Tune. It takes a great band, playing as one for the toughest audience in the world: itself.