After years spent establishing their command of most genres of American rock and pop, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers finally get around to making their blues album - and it's one of their very best efforts, as ought to be the case when a band plugs into the potency of raw R'n'B spirit.
There's a steely confidence about the album right from the opening riff of "Jefferson Jericho Blues", whose unison guitar and harmonica groove rolls along with the Corvette power of a Chess Records classic, Petty musing about Thomas Jefferson's miscegenate affection for "the little maid out back". Then it's straight into the waltz-time single "First Flash of Freedom", whose oddly prog-rockish riff brings to mind The Allman Brothers Band on one of their jazz-infused workouts. It offers the first of a series of showcases for guitarist Mike Campbell, who demonstrates his extraordinary versatility across virtually any style you'd care to mention, from the stormtrooper heavy-metal stomp of "I Should Have Known It" to the amped-up country-blues of "U.S. 41" and the brilliant simulation of J J Cale's neat, fluid guitar licks for "Candy".
As you'd expect from Petty and his gang, there's a fair number of long highways traversed on Mojo, which may be why it sounds so great played while driving. As well as the lumber-worker walking down "U.S. 41", there's the Cadillac Eldorado hymned in "Candy", the adventurer running down "this dark highway" in "Running Man's Bible", the paranoid doper scared by a police car's blue light in his mirror in the engaging reggae groove "Don't Pull Me Over", and sundry metaphors involving slowing down or overtaking. Best of all, perhaps, is "The Trip to the Pirate's Cove", a typical Petty tale of Californication in which the car runs out of gas and loses a wheel, so the two buddies stop off to party with the maids at a motel, before heading off into the sunset again: "My friend said take her with you/To leave her here would be a crime/But let's get outta Santa Cruz/All I got is a Canadian dime". The narrative has a peculiarly sketchy, inconclusive character that leaves the story suspended somewhere between ephemeral and authentic, which is exactly the territory an American road myth ought to occupy.
Impressively for one working in a genre so dominated by ill-starred romance, Petty the songwriter finds a broad range of themes around which to hang these blues, including the cautionary tale about the abuse of power and alcohol, "High in the Morning": "Well, it pierces my heart to see a young man fall... To see him high in the morning, and by evening see him gone". But none is more aptly upholstered than the Muddy Waters stomp applied to "Takin' My Time", in which an ageing party animal, finally feeling his years, fondly recalls his youth, "when my fuse was still lit". It's such a perfect alliance of sentiment and setting that Muddy himself might have penned it.