Tom Petty is at his best when he stops thinking so hard. When he puts a lot of time into an album and tries to build it around a strong theme, the result can end up sounding like much less than the sum of its parts (Southern Accents, The Last DJ). But when he just takes the band into the studio and starts playing (Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), Full Moon Fever, Highway Companion), you can count on having a good time.
Mudcrutch falls firmly into the latter category. The result of Petty’s reunion with his band from high school, the album was recorded live in 10 days (as the sleeve says, "vocals, harmony, everything/Arrangements done on studio floor") and sounds more fresh than anything he’s recorded in the last 20 years. All of his solo or Heartbreakers albums during that period have been produced either by Rick Rubin and Jeff Lynne, both masters of the studio who put a ton of time into making something sound like it was spontaneous (that's not intended to be a hit on either of them, by the way). Mudcrutch is spontaneous, and that’s the key difference between it and some of its predecessors.
On the other hand, this isn’t likely to become known as Petty’s best album, and there’s little doubt making great art wasn’t on his mind when he brought the old buds together one more time. They were out to have a great time, and it shows. The album hits a relaxed groove from the first track (the traditional “Shady Grove”), and that groove never lets up. Hooks abound, and I’m not sure the lyrics even matter. Not every song is destined to become a classic, and sure, “Crystal River” may be a few minutes too long (at nearly 9 minutes!). Just lean back, pretend you’re listening to some vintage Dead, and enjoy.
For the record, Mudcrutch features Petty on bass, along with Heartbreakers Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on keyboards, joined by Randall Marsh on drums and Tom Leadon on guitar. Marsh and Leadon are probably pinching themselves right about now to make sure this hasn’t all been a dream, but in fact they fit right in, and sound like they’ve been playing with the big boys for years.
Everyone needs to lighten up (or light up, depending on whether you do that sort of thing) every now and then, and by doing so, Petty has made a record that may end up lasting a lot longer than all those “important” ones he tried to make earlier in his career.