Tom Petty is the front man and songwriter for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the rock band whose most famous song is the late 1970s hit "Breakdown." Petty and his fellow band members got started in their home state of Florida, but in the mid-1970s they headed to Los Angeles to make records. Their 1976 debut eponymous album included the songs "Breakdown" and "American Girl," and the band became a hit in the U.K.
By the time their second album was released in 1978 (You're Gonna Get It), their first record was making the charts in the U.S. The success of 1979's Damn the Torpedoes (with hits such as "Refugee") catapulted them from the nightclub circuit to sold-out arenas. In the late '80s Petty did solo work (1989's Full Moon Fever was a top seller) and collaborated with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in the band The Traveling Wilburys.
Petty, a 2002 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has had a string of hits as a solo artist and with The Heartbreakers, including "Don't Do Me Like That," "Don't Come Around Here No More," "Into the Great Wide Open" and "Free Fallin'."
Some time in the last few years Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers took a left turn. Maybe it was when Petty woke up in the night with the idea of reuniting his first band, Mudcrutch, to cut the album they never got a chance to make back in the early ‘70s. Maybe it was when the Heartbreakers assembled the mammoth multi-disc The Live Anthology, which detailed thirty years of concerts. Maybe it was when they gave all their home movies, outtakes and live footage to director Peter Bogdanovich to create the Grammy-winning four-hour career documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream. There have been side projects and experiments since the band last went into the studio to cut a new Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album. With MOJO (2010), they have taken their recent freedom and experimentation to heart. They have gone off the reservation and all signs indicate they aren’t coming back.
The first thing that hits you about MOJO is that the spirit of the Mudcrutch sessions has carried on with the Heartbreakers. This is the sound of a band playing together in a room not a studio - facing each other, all singing and playing at the same time. The music is alive, with no overdubs or studio trickery. What you hear is what they created on the spot at that time.
Tom Petty says, “With this album, I want to show other people what I hear with the band. MOJO is where the band lives when it’s playing for itself.”
As for the songs, MOJO showcases a wide variety of American music from rock ‘n’ roll to country and both electric and acoustic blues. And then there are the images in Petty’s lyrics which slip in on the melodies and set up a home in your head: The barefoot girl in the high grass chewing on a stick of sugar cane, the run-in with the law that begins when a carload of buddies decide to party with the motel maids, and the hilariously audacious idea of opening an album with an electric blues rocker about Thomas Jefferson’s love affair with Sally Hemings. Petty would probably chuck a rock at anyone who called him a poet, but he sure is a southern writer of humor and sensitivity.
MOJO has juice and guts but it also has some sweet balladry for the slow dancers and even a wacked-out reggae number that is unlike anything that the Heartbreakers have done before. It’s the kind of album nobody’s supposed to be able to make anymore. It got here just in time.