Album Review

Brian Ahnmark
Forgive me, Rock Gods, for I am about to sin.

Let's get this out of the way: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are rock royalty, responsible for some of the most enduring anthems in the history of popular music. They are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a distinction both earned and deserved.

All of the above makes Mojo, the band's first studio album in eight years, a bitter listen to endure. It was apparently intended as a salute to the blues artists who inspired the Heartbreakers in the first place. To be blunt, Mojo comes off sounding like an open mic blues jam hosted by burnouts at your local bar – to be fair, with the impeccable musicianship of, you know, one of the greatest bands of all time.

It doesn't help that Mojo is oddly backloaded, with essentially the entire first half firing blanks. Opener “Jefferson Jericho Blues” is built upon a promising thematic premise: Thomas Jefferson's affair with slave Sally Hemings. But the song itself is rooted in a basic blues format, throwing up the first red flag. Merely following standard structure – i.e. walking in footsteps already left behind – means these songs essentially wrote themselves. This makes no sense when you have one of rock's finest writers at the helm.

Tom has earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants. But what he does best is write some of the most honest, timeless rock songs known to man's ear.

Second track “First Flash of Freedom” sets the table for the remainder of the album. It's a wandering jam that never really “jams,” idling through verses until Mike Campbell trots out fluid solos. Extended songs work when there's an element of dramatic surprise around the corner; a crescendo, a hush, a tempo change. Most of the longer tracks on Mojo lumber through unimaginative arrangements. And the excuse that this album was designed as a chance for the Heartbreakers to shine? Bullshit. They're in the Rock Hall for a reason, having set the foundation for an embarrassing wealth of classic songs.

Only one tune on Mojo even remotely approaches the echelon of Tom's finer work: “I Should Have Known It,” a hot cousin to “Honey Bee” that bears no resemblance to the rest of the record. Campbell and Scott Thurston grind out a murderous riff to accompany the snarl of Ole Tom Bastard; the multi-guitar finale lifts off like a band sloughing eight years of rust.

From there, a discernible heartbeat emerges, albeit briefly. “U.S. 41” blows the other blues salutes out of the water, built around Petty's acoustic rhythm and Campbell's slide leads on a Kay Jimmy Reed Model. “Takin' My Time” would make Muddy Waters proud, a gloriously sexy groove taken at a molasses tempo.

But just as quickly, the edge dulls and disappears. Ultimately, Mojo is pockmarked with sins particularly inexcusable for a band of this caliber. Fadeouts in the middle of smoking Campbell solos; mechanical drums from Steve Ferrone in spots that beg for flourishes; virtually no hooks or bridges from the master of hooks and bridges. The end result is (forgive me, Rock Gods) boring. The technical proficiency of the Heartbreakers only exacerbates the overall weakness of this batch of songs.

By the time this 15-track, 65-minute behemoth finally staggers to finish line, at least it's with panache. “Good Enough” represents what Mojo could have been – legitimate dramatic songwriting, a classic Campbell solo turning Incredible Hulk as Ferrone beats the daylights out of his cymbals.

Too little too late.