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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
Leadon and Marsh, meanwhile, went on to share the Pete Best position in Heartbreakers lore – and if not for “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” the epic Petty documentary that Peter Bogdanovich released last year, that’s probably just about where the story would have ended for Mudcrutch. Participating in Bogdanovich’s movie put Petty in a reflective mood, however, and he ended up doing something you almost never see millionaire rock stars do – namely, getting the old band back together.
Of course, given that Petty has been working with Campbell and Tench essentially uninterrupted for the last few decades, the leap from Petty and the Heartbreakers to Mudcrutch isn’t a long one – but for Petty fans, this should come as no surprise; after all, the difference between one of his solo albums and a Heartbreakers record has always been fairly minimal, and the same principle applies here. Both Leadon and Tench have their moments in the spotlight, but Petty wrote or co-wrote eight of the 14 tracks – and four of the ones he didn’t write are covers.
This isn’t a bad thing, mind you. He hasn’t really hit a top-to-bottom home run since at least 1994’s Wildflowers, and he doesn’t move as many units as he used to, but Petty’s still one of the brightest stars in the rock & roll firmament; at an age when many of his peers’ muses have long since given out on them, Petty has continued churning out reliably solid work on a regular basis. Here’s the tricky part, though: You might be tempted to assume, given how obviously Petty’s reaching back to his youth here, that Mudcrutch represents a return to pre-Wildflowers form – to the days when he was as likely to deliver a punchy rocker as he was a back-porch ballad – and this isn’t the case. The album is a clear tribute to late-period Byrds, right down to its cover of “Lover of the Bayou” and a version of the Dave Dudley chestnut “Six Days on the Road” that owes everything to the Flying Burrito Brothers’ cover. It’s bucolic, freewheeling rock, tinged with Laurel Canyon country overtones and flavored with sweet, nostalgic sadness.
Where it differs from late-period Petty – and even here, the difference is fairly minor – is in its execution. By sliding his name off the marquee and stepping back into the rhythm section, Petty is able to remove some of that long-held frontman weight from his shoulders. He might be singing most of the songs, but there’s still an extra bit of looseness in his delivery; when you get right down to it, he sounds like he’s having fun. The tracks were cut live in the studio, and the songs benefit from the treatment – there’s a palpable sense of joy in the band’s communication here, the kind you only get when all parties involved are able to just sit back and play. (And play they do: “Crystal River,” the album’s longest track, weighs in at nine and a half minutes.)
All of this is well and good. Here’s the thing, though: Petty earned a lot of his success based on an uncommon gift for blending rock amplitude with solid pop hooks – go back and listen to “American Girl” again for a perfect early example of this – and on Mudcrutch, as on wide swaths of most of his recent albums, that blend is hard to come by. That’s partly by design – the artists he’s so strongly evoking never valued hooks as much as vibe, man – but knowing that isn’t going to help these songs stick in your memory bank; the album is a smooth ride, but after it’s over, you’ll be hard-pressed to remember many specific details of the landscape.
And again, that sort of hazy, good-natured simplicity was probably exactly what the band was aiming for. But even if you were there to hear the Byrds and the Burritos the first time around, this isn’t liable to feel like much more than a fun little exercise in nostalgia – and if you weren’t there, you may come away wondering what all the fuss was about. Petty deserves all the credit in the world for following his muse, but if he’s going to be wandering his back pages, it’s hard not to wish he’d skip to the Damn the Torpedoes or Hard Promises chapters instead.