Review: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers- Mojo
Tom Petty has released plenty of great music in the past few years: his 2006 solo album Highway Companion, the 2008 reunion of his original band Mudcrutch, and last year’s 4-CD set The Live Anthology. Yet he hasn’t released an album with the Heartbreakers since The Last DJ, his 2002 “fuck you” to corporate radio and corporate rock.
From the beginning of the first track, you can see that this one is different. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s Mike Cambell’s channeling of Duane Allman throughout the album. Or maybe Benmont Tench’s channeling of both Ray Manzarek and Billy Preston depending on which fits the song better. Or maybe it’s the fact that Petty himself sounds more and more like Dylan with each passing year and continues to improve his already excellent skills as a songwriter. Whatever it is I like it.
Things get started with “Jefferson Jericho Blues”. It’s a great blues tune patterned after Jimmy Reed and Willie Dixon and featuring some wonderful harmonica playing from Scott Thurston. The track sets the mood for the rest of the album as all great opening tracks should.
The rock ballad “First Flash of Freedom” follows. It features some strong guitar from Campbell and even stronger lyrics from Petty. The track is reminiscent of “Night Driver” from Highway Companion in both its pace and its somewhat jazzy elements. “A fistful of glory, a suitcase of sand,” Petty sings, “The language you dream in when you count to 10/You go to the edge and you always give in/On your first flash of freedom”. At nearly seven minutes in length, it could be Petty’s longest studio recording, but I’d have to double-check that.
“Running Man’s Bible” is musically similar to Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody”, but more guitar driven. But that is where, despite it’s title, the similarities to any of Dylan’s Christian period ends. Benmont’s organ work is really great here as is the rhythm section.
“The Trip to Pirate’s Cove” may be the strongest track on the album and one of the best in a career filled with great songs. A stoner rock backing underlies some of Petty’s strongest lyrics ever. It is a story song and it really reminded me of the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” which the Heartbreakers released a version of on The Live Anthology. Just check this out: “We lost a wheel in Santa Cruz, so we partied with some motel maids/My friend said I don’t like mine, so what do you say we trade/She was a part of my heart, now she’s just a line in my face/They let us go with a warning, said we’d book you but we don’t have a case” or “My friend said take her with you, to leave her here would be a crime/But let’s get out of Santa Cruz, all I got is a Canadian dime/I got a friend in Mendocino and it’s gettin’ close to harvest time/And she was kinda cute if a little past her prime”. After I listened to this song for the first time, I didn’t move on to the next track. I hit the back button and listened to it again.
The gentle country-rocker “Candy” follows and it shows how the band can adapt to any style and also showcases a very different, but equally great part of Petty’s lyrical craft (“Well I don’t drink Coca-Cola, but I sure like that old moonshine/Well I don’t like Coca-Cola but I sure like that old moonshine/Yeah, we drink it from a fruit jar with my little baby by my side”). This track features some great slide guitar work from Campbell. This is the type of song to listen to on your front porch swing in the middle of summer.
“No Reason to Cry” is a mostly acoustic-based love song with slide guitar in the background. He sounds more like Dylan than ever on this one. It’s neither the best nor worst track of his career or on this album, but it is also far from filler and it does showcase an absolutely brilliant band doing what they do best.
“I Should Have Known It,” on the other hand, is something entirely new for Petty and company. Imagine some parallel universe where Tom Petty is the lead singer of Led Zeppelin. This is what you would hear in your head. The Heartbreakers have rarely rocked this hard or this loud and Petty has enough experience behind a microphone to pull off the swagger of Robert Plant or Roger Daltrey for at least one track and he does so here with amazing results.
“U.S. 41” is a country blues song about life and work along the highway that runs from Michigan to Florida. And when I say country blues, I’m not talking about the Delta blues that the term is sometimes used to describe. No, this sounds like the result of a collaboration between John Lee Hooker and Merle Haggard.
“Takin’ My Time” sounds vaguely like Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” as Muddy Waters would have performed it. Needless to say, the band is at the top of their game here for it to elicit those types of comparisons from me. To be honest, though, the lyrics aren’t all that memorable, but sometimes in blues or blues rock the lyrics aren’t nearly as important as the atmosphere and mood the song creates and this song definitely succeeds on that count.
“Let Yourself Go” sounds like a lost Doors track from the L.A. Woman era with it’s strong organ sections right up front. “I got a blonde-headed woman who likes to come around,” Petty says, “Cute little hippie girl lives in town/Brings a bag of records and she plays them ’til dawn/Gimme little lovin’ then she got to go home”.
“Don’t Pull Me Over” sounds like the classic Heartbreakers sound of the ’80s complete with electric keyboards and the drums being way too heavy in the mix. If any song on this album can be said to have a message, I guess it would be this one with its lines about how “it should be legalized”.
The next track, “Lover’s Touch” is a Claptonesque blues rock tune. The band performs it competently enough, but to my ears it is the album’s weakest track.
“High in the Morning” is like Stevie Ray Vaughan meets John Fogerty at Stax Studios with lyrics that could have came only from Petty. Lyrically, it follows a similar theme as “When a Kid Goes Bad” from The Last DJ.
“Something Good Coming” is a classic Petty ballad in the tradition of “Learning to Fly”, “Insider”, or the lesser know “Dreamville”. The lyrics deal with self-examination and struggle but hold out hope for a better tomorrow. The fact that this song (which I did hear once on my local rock station) isn’t in the top 40 right now represents everything that is wrong with today’s music industry.
“Good Enough” is slow and heavy with an atmosphere of melancholy. If the guitar was distorted you would immediately think of Tony Iommi, the guitarist for Black Sabbath (that should be common knowledge, but I figured I’d point it out in case it isn’t). The lyrics and melody are among Petty’s most memorable and Mike Campbell turns in on hell of a guitar solo. This isn’t the strongest track on the album but it is one of the strongest of Petty’s career nevertheless.
At this point in their career, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers could churn out a set of tunes in the style of Damn the Torpedoes or Hard Promises in their sleep, release it, get another gold record within a year, and go out on the road and perform their greatest hits album to sold out arenas. But they chose the road less traveled on, and as Robert Frost, another great American poet, said “that has made all the difference”.
I was worried that The Live Anthology, great as it was, may have simply been a look back at the band’s past glories, but as this album proves the Heartbreakers are still at the top of their game and are perhaps the best band in rock music still actively performing (and on their upcoming tour, the opening act will be the Drive-By Truckers, another strong contender for that title).To get right down to it, this is the best Heartbreakers record since Southern Accents and the best Petty record since Wildflowers and that is why it belongs in your collection.