The Heartbreakers’ first album in several years is, as has been widely reported, a return of sorts to the group’s blues roots, and it’s a fine, fine disc. Now together for more than 30 years with minimal personnel changes, the Heartbreakers can clearly play this stuff in their sleep—but they don’t! Instead they invest some standard blues progressions and mid-’60s-style R&B rave-ups with tremendous energy and imagination. At this point, it’s no surprise that Petty handles this material amazingly well as a singer—it brings out his inner Southerner (never too far beneath surface) and he does “1930s bluesman” about as well as any white boy can. And guitarist Mike Campbell is, as always, the paragon of tasteful but scorching licks: Over the course of 15 songs here, he gets to try out probably a dozen different tones and approaches, from wah-wah, to slide to speedy Jimmy Page-like fretwork. Campbell will always toil in the shadow of bandleader Petty, but the fact is he’s always been among the greatest and most underrated players in rock. And the rest of the guys sound fantastic on this outing, which was cut mostly live in the studio—a feat only a few bands could pull off with such aplomb. Ben Tench’s keyboard colorations on B-3 and Wurlitzer elevate everything he touches; Ron Blair and Steve Ferrone lay down a steady rhythmic bed on bass and drums respectively; and Scott Thurston shines on harmonica on several tracks, as well as guitar and vocals. (Petty’s own guitar playing is also typically excellent throughout.)
There are echoes of everything from the Yardbirds to Led Zeppelin to the Stax stylings of Rufus Thomas, but it still all sounds remarkably like Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers—that’s how well they’ve absorbed and internalized their influences. And there are also a few more modern-sounding tunes that could only be TP and Co.: the wonderful “First Flash of Freedom” has a loose, Allman Brothers-ish vibe that’s really appealing and is augmented by affecting lyrics; and both “The Trip to Pirate Cove” and “U.S. 41” are in that category of Petty songs which are either autobiographically revelatory or just cool stories (or maybe both).
A winner though and through, beautifully recorded (love all the interesting vocal treatments!) and further proof (as if we needed it) that this is truly one of the great American bands of all time. Including the specific instruments played on each track in the liner booklet is also a nice touch!
Must Play: “Jefferson Jericho Blues,” “First Flash of Freedom”
Producers: Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Ryan Ulyate. Engineered and mixed by Ulyate. Recorded at The Clubhouse (L.A.); mixed at Shoreline Recorders (Malibu) and Ryan’s Place (Topanga/L.A.). Mastering: Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering