These days you can never put too much hope in an album title revealing its inner framework. Rarer still do you see artists bringing a cohesive blueprint to the notion of a traditional 'album' at all. But upon first listen to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' first studio effort in eight years, Mojo aims straight for the heart of the word and all it implies: a tightly focused foray into the blues while exhibiting all its strut and swagger, explains Heartbreakers' guitarist (and Petty's right-hand man) Mike Campbell over the phone. "The album is definitely in that vein—that word conjured up those images."
Recorded live off the floor with minimal overdubs, the inspiration for Mojo follows the band's momentum as of late: in 2008 Petty and Campbell gathered members of their original band Mudcrutch to do a record just that way. "We set up live in our warehouse, no headphones," Campbell explains, "and it was such a joy to play that way that we figured for the next record we need to approach it that way because it was much more inspiring and fun."
At the same time, he and Petty were busy pouring over 35 years' of live recordings, compiling material for 2009's Live Anthology. But the centrepiece for Mojo would be Campbell's 1959 Gibson Les Paul—a guitar, he notes, "that we loved, and Tom was always raving about it, and he said, 'Let's set up live in the warehouse like we did with Mudcrutch and make the album around the sound of that guitar.'"
If this sounds like a guitarist's wet dream, you're right. The result is a blues tour de force; slow and heavy-handed, Mojo exhibits moments recalling Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Dylan and Neil Young's Crazy Horse, while Campbell's signature two-string leads give extraordinary shape and feel to Petty's cool-headed songwriting.
"Tom came to me around the time we were working on Live Anthology, where we went back through all the live recordings we've ever done, and there were [songs] where we'd stretch out a little bit, and he said we should explore that a little more on this record," Campbell reveals. "He said, 'We'll use that guitar, we'll make it the main sound of the record, and we'll lighten up the reins on the three-minute form.'"
Ultimately, it was important to allow the guitar to stretch out across the album without "a bunch of mindless noodling" distracting from the spirit of the songs, he adds. After 35 years of playing together, the band's chemistry is instinctual, and as one fan suggested on the band's message board, Mojo finds the band "filling the gaps in [its] discography with the hits [it] never wrote."
"Maybe in a sense we're looking back and looking forward at the same time," Campbell responds. "I mean, we grew up in the South. The music culture we grew up hearing was a lot of blues—not just 'Stormy Monday Blues,' but Howlin' Wolf and rhythmic blues, Jimmy Reed, that kinda stuff, and it's always been a source of our inspiration.
"A lot of our records over the years have also been greatly influenced by the British bands back in the '60s, with the 12-string guitar, the Byrds sound, we've tapped that source of inspiration quite a bit. So on this record, it just felt comfortable for us to go back further, a little closer to the purest source of where we were inspired—the deep country blues, and see if we could pull that into the band today and see what happens. And that's what Mojo is." V