Tom Petty hasn't recorded an album with the Heartbreakers since 2002's The Last DJ, and that offering, a musically flat and thematically overheated protest against the commercial excesses of the music industry, probably hasn't done much to tide fans over in the interim (meanwhile, Petty's populist scruples haven't stopped him from asking upward of $150 for his latest concerts). All the more puzzling, then, that Petty and company don't even attempt a return to form on Mojo. Instead, they opt for bluesy jamming over their familiar Byrds-style jangle, with all of the appropriate signifiers of rootsy Americana in place: there's a chugging ode to the highway, "U.S. 41," that comes complete with honking harmonica interludes; "Jefferson Jericho Blues" and "Running Man's Bible" provide an early airing for the requisite religious iconography; and "First Flash of Freedom" actually has a bit about untameable wild mustangs running across "hills that no rich man could claim." As paeans to the rugged American sprit go, Mojo is about as evocative as a middle school civ report; you keep waiting for a line about Davie Crockett or the Alamo.
Since he can't seem to resist these thudding clichés, it's probably for the best that Petty keeps a low profile for much of the album's runtime. The record is long on instrumentals and short on singing, with Petty showing up mostly to fill space between guitar solos and extended jams, giving Mojo a higher Heartbreakers-to-Petty ratio than any previous release. But if Mojo is meant to be the band's showcase, it's not an especially successful one. Sure, they're a tight set of musicians with undeniable chemistry, and the album affords them plenty of chances to play off one another, but this hardly makes an argument for Mojo's existence. Does anyone doubt that Mike Campbell knows his way around a blues lead, or that a bunch of musicians who have spent decades playing together could lock a groove with easy cohesion?
The trouble is that the Heartbreakers sound less like themselves and more like Creedence Clearwater Revival here ("Candy"), Muddy Waters there ("High in the Morning"), and the Allman Brothers everywhere. On "Don't Pull Me Over," they even dip into the bland reggae riffing that every jam band guitarist worthy of his hemp Phish hat has rehashed at least once or twice.
Unsurprisingly, the Heartbreakers play the material well, and the fact that the album was recorded live with no overdubs is a testament to their skill. While few of the songs are outright bad, they simply fail to push beyond the roads well-worn by their obvious influences (though they do often push on quite a lot longer than they ought to: There are quite a lot of five- and six-minute tracks that aren't nearly interesting enough to justify their length). And from harmonicas to the honky-tonk pianos, the instrumentation isn't much more creative than the lyrics.
With neither their own sound nor their best songwriting in place, the only thing that the Heartbreakers end up showcasing here is the basic appeal of the blues idiom: that a group of skilled musicians playing with those familiar scales and progressions will sound pretty damn good, even if originality never becomes part of the equation. But anyone who's been to a bar on blues night could tell you that. If you'd like to have that message delivered by Petty himself, Mojo may be the record for you. Otherwise, your money is better spent in support of whatever local blues act is working through essentially the same material next weekend. That, or one-tenth of a Tom Petty ticket.