When you spend your life dealing with music, certain figures accompany you on the trip whether you want them or not. For me, Tom Petty has been one of those.
Once I tuned in to the world beyond Sesame Street, he was there with “Refugee” and “The Waiting.” By the time I was in high school, he was still there, with “Free Fallin’” and the Wilburys. They were all pretty good rock tunes. However, it seemed like each year there was a record that was the big story ( Thriller, Born in the U.S.A., Like a Virgin ) or a band that was a mystery to resolve (R.E.M., The Smiths) and oh yeah, there was also another Tom Petty record. He was just there.
I used to think this was a bit annoying. However, being involved in rock a bit more myself has changed my perspective a bit. One former bandmate of mine mentioned Petty’s ability to put just enough there to make a song work, at least enough that he could get a hit once every couple years for a few decades. And, at this point, I think I shouldn’t have taken it for granted that music could support a guy at this level of talent as handsomely as it did for so long.
So I decided to give his new CD, Mojo, a thorough listen. Mojo could be considered another entry in Petty’s post-stardom phase. That phase seems to have started around a decade ago, and Petty has progressed from bitterness ( The Last D.J. ) to acceptance ( Mudcrutch , the jammy, self-indulgent record he could have made, and was probably wise not to have made, in the early 70’s). Mojo isn’t quite as uncommercial as Mudcrutch, but starting the disc off with a blues about Thomas Jefferson is a sign that he’s probably not thinking megahit this time either.
Mojo documents him and his band, the Heartbreakers, at work. The playing is solid, and my time as a rock player makes me envy this a bit. However, aside from the standouts at the beginning of the disc, and the more successful sidesteps (the Zep-ish “I Should Have Known It” and the “She’s So Heavy”-ish “Good Enough”), the unvarying solidity wears a bit thin. Each song has the same steady, unflashy bass and drums, the requisite well-chosen keyboard texture, the “soulful” lead guitar. Some have hyped the “reggae” “Don’t Pull Me Over” as a misstep, but to this listener it’s just one more entry in the parade of pleasant exercises.
Petty is less commercial in this post-stardom stage, but I suspect he isn’t wired to do uncommercial. The “motel maids” verse in “A Trip To Pirate’s Cove” caught my attention on the first listen, but “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” it isn’t. The best song, “Running Man’s Bible,” shows that knack for putting just enough there – no chord change at all in the verses, only a few in the chorus. It could have been a hit, back then, although I suspect in those days he wouldn’t have let the track hit six minutes like he does here.
I suspect he will say he couldn’t have written this song back then, though. And if I was in a post-stardom phase, I’d probably also be singing about “survival.” And while Mojo isn’t going to take Petty out of this phase, documenting a band at work is about as much of a favor as a guy in this mode can do for rock music.