Tom Petty is back, just not in the manner that you might expect. Following in the wake of the success of his last album with his regular band The Heartbreakers, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, Petty has decided once again to venture off the beaten path to record once again with Mudcrutch, the band that began as a forerunner to the Heartbreakers but became a side project once revived. With keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist and regular foil Mike Campbell also onboard, Mudcrutch isn’t a huge sonic leap from his regular line of work, but from an emotional standpoint, the differences from this release and his nominal day job couldn’t be vaster.
The real purpose of this record, and of Mudcrutch’s existence writ large, is to serve as a vehicle for Petty to revisit his younger self. You have to remember, Mudcrutch originally began life as another amongst dozens and dozens of bar bands in northern Florida in the early 1970s, trying as best they could to eke out a living before inevitably going out with a whimper later in the decade. The very first line, on the very first song of 2, “Trailer”, is “I graduated high school,” which is a jarring, but fascinating thing to hear a 65-year-old man sing. In Petty’s mind however, he’s not that classic rock icon here. If you wanna listen to Tom Petty the international superstar, go check out any number of records he’s made either under his own name or with the Heartbreakers across the last four decades. No, this is good ol’ Tom Petty, the guy who never left Florida for the hot lights of Hollywood, California. Who never met Jimmy Iovine or Rick Rubin. Who never made Damn The Torpedoes or Wildflowers.
And that’s totally fine. Really, it’s the entire appeal of the side project. Every once in a while, you might end up with a Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines debacle, but in more considerate hands, side projects can become interesting detours that allow songwriters and megastars to shed the emotional baggage that comes with trying to live up to an audience’s expectations, while trying on another guise for a while. To write words and craft melodies in someone else’s skin, with almost no stakes, has to be an enormous relief to someone who spends a lot of his time trying to be whatever it means to be “Tom Petty.” Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant did a similar sort of thing to great affect a number of years back with his return Band of Joy album.
One thing Petty can’t seem to change is his signature sound. The voice that comes across many of these tracks is completely unshakeable, and try as you, or he might, even with a different coterie of players involved, even with a different mission in mind, 2 still very much sounds like another Tom Petty record. If thematically the stakes are lowered, his sonic ambitions remain just as tall as they have always been. This is a record brimming with catchy melodies, forlorn chord changes, and unique instrumental accents. “Dreams of Flying”, for example, is about as solid and toe-tap-inducing a song as anything in Petty’s canon, and features a breathtakingly wistful guitar solo from Campbell.
The rest of the record is fleshed out by the band’s meanderings through the aural history of pop, rock, and country music. “Welcome to Hell” is an interesting vintage rockabilly detour into honky-tonk led by Tench, while Campbell adopts a pretty convincing Blonde on Blonde-era Bob Dylan impression for “Victim of Circumstance”. The real highlight, and the best song on 2, however, is “Beautiful Blue”. It’s vintage Petty, through and through, finding the singer wailing away at his most raw and bare, expressing a desire to wrap the unknown object of his affection in a “beautiful blue” while dropping “ashes in your tea” over some of the most soul-crushingly mournful chords you’ve ever heard.
In the end, you really can’t change who you are. As much as Petty tries to hand off the spotlight to the other members of the band to sing songs, as much as he tries to shift his launch point, as much as he tries to obscure his own star power, 2 stands as yet another superb showcase of songwriting and musicianship from a beloved icon.
Essential Tracks: “Beautiful Blue”, “Dreams of Flying”, and “Welcome to Hell”