Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Mojo (Reprise)

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Tom Petty: Takin' My Time
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Mojo (Reprise)

My take on Tom Petty -- most of whose albums in the first decade or more I cherished with a passion, but had misfortunes with the man -- is that when he hooked up with the Traveling Wilburys he became prematurely geriatric and he lost his rock edge.

This is a theory which doesn't bear much serious scrutiny perhaps (I was "wrong" about the Wilburys as I have conceded), but after the Wilburys there were a lot of songs which were strum-strum and much less sting-sting.

I always liked him better when there was an edge of menace about his lyrics and delivery. But when he started talking about a band locking into a groove (the last refuge of sad-bastard musos I always think: see Mark Knopfler) and the delivery didn't match the lyrics I sort of gave up.

As with McCartney -- because I wanted to be surprised again -- I'd always listed to every Petty album. But, as with McCartney, I'd always come away mostly disappointed. 

The recent, fiery four-CD Petty/Heartbreakers live Anthology -- and earlier that terrific Peter Bogdanich bio-doco Running Down a Dream -- got Tom back into my sight-lines again, and this one is very interesting, if not entirely persuasive.

At times you'd be forgiven for thinking this is a Tom/Heartbreakers' roots'n'blues album: repeatedly there are are echoes of Muddy Waters, swamp blues with wah-wah, rural blues, r'n'b one step removed from the Stones' version of the blues . . .

And then at it's oddest, on I Should Have Known It, you can hear Tom-as-Wilbury/Dylan grafted onto a White Stripes edition of Led Zeppelin.

Don't Pull Me Over is like the scenario of Bob Marley's Roadblock wished into Springsteen's Mr State Trooper (on Nebraska) with the neither the starkness nor the relevance of either: Whatever the suggested scenario (Petty as a dealer just doin' right for kids) just doesn't gel. As has been too often the case with Petty lately, his delivery sounds like a guy who'd rather offer passive resistance (or whimper We Shall Overcome) than get up/stand up . . . or even do a runner with the cops in chase.

That limpness of spirit is evident elsewhere here: US 41 is a deliberately lo-fi acoustic back-country blues which sketches in a story which seems a verse short of being complete; A Trip to Pirate's Cove is a weary and joyless reminiscence of what sound like a shapeless stoner's journey. 

But what also redeems parts of this are songs like the genuinely affecting No Reason to Cry about regret after a relationship has ended; the Muddy Waters' menace on Takin' My Time (which suggests the slower pace means a meaner revenge); and Something Good Coming which offers a flicker of optimism and quiet salute to the dignity and strength of of the human spirit despite these hard times.

So a typicallly uneven Petty/Heartbreakers album . . . but given the sustained mood of roots and blues this also sounds more consistent over the long haul.

And so, as always also, you still never count him out. 

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