Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (Warner Bros., 1976)
You're Gonna Get It! (Warner Bros., 1978)
Damn the Torpedoes (MCA, 1979)
Hard Promises (MCA, 1981)
Long After Dark (MCA, 1982)
Southern Accents (MCA, 1985)
Pack Up the Plantation: Live! (MCA, 1986)
Let Me Up (I've Had Enough)
Full Moon Fever (MCA, 1989)
Into the Great Wide Open (MCA, 1991)
1/2 Greatest Hits (MCA, 1993)
Wildflowers (Warner Bros., 1994)
Playback (MCA, 1995)
Songs and Music From "She's the One" (Warner Bros., 1996)
Echo (Warner Bros., 1999)
Anthology: Through the Years (MCA, 2000)
The Last DJ (Warner Bros., 2002)
Highway Companion (Warner Bros., 2002)
The Love Anthology (Warner Bros., 2009)
One thing you can say about Tom Petty is he's consistent. He's never made a classic studio record, but except for the predictable sophomore slump, all of his albums are, at the very least, good. Some are very good, some are merely good, none are bad. The best is Greatest Hits, which stands a testament to Petty's reliability as a straightforward, radio-rocking tunesmith.
In the mid-Seventies, when Petty left his native Florida for Los Angeles, the environment was ripe for his Southern counterclaim to the chiming guitars of the Byrds and the cocky strut of the Rolling Stones. Between 1976 and 1978, when Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and You're Gonna Get It came out, the Southern rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd was dying and punk was on the rise. This was the backdrop for the controlled anger of such early Heartbreakers songs as "Breakdown," "Rockin' Around (With You)," "The Wild One, Forever," "Too Much Ain't Enough," and "Restless." But Petty was always more of a simple, Southern-bred fan of classic Sixties and Seventies album rock. On songs such as "Mystery Man" and "Luna," from the first album, the Heartbreakers dip their toes into Exile-era Stones and "Warm Love"–period Van Morrison. In the anthemic "American Girl," Petty and the boys beat the Byrds at their own game. The Heartbreakers got derailed on You're Gonna Get It! Some of the songs sounded like the group had traded Byrds and Stones fixations for Foreigner and Foghat, though "I Need to Know" stood up to the best of the new-wave era's revamped power pop.
If none of the songs on the Heartbreakers' first two albums hit the ball out of the park, "Refugee," from Damn the Torpedoes, did. The fuck-you snarl of Petty's nasal, Dylan-via-Jagger delivery and the bright, crunchy drive of Mike Campbell's Telecaster rendered "Refugee" 1980's most powerful radio anthem. Torpedoes stormed the charts and established a formula for the Heartbreakers that they would milk on nearly every subsequent release: two or three hook-filled singles ("Here Comes My Girl," "Even the Losers," "Don't Do Me Like That"), a pseudoserious ballad ("Louisiana Rain"), and too much boring filler. The band employed that formula to massive commercial success on the folk-rocking Hard Promises and synth-embellished Long After Dark, which together spawned hits in "The Waiting," "A Woman in Love (It's Not Me)," "You Got Lucky," and "Change of Heart." Those tracks are the highlights, though; the rest is just competent frat-house party fodder.
Midway into the Eighties, Petty and the Heartbreakers threw a serious curveball. Their sixth album, Southern Accents, is a top-notch collection of songs written and performed from the disparate perspectives of characters from Petty's Gainesville, Florida, childhood. With an expanded musical palette—courtesy of producer Dave Stewart, who brought in horns, sitar, background vocalists, and a beautifully restrained electronics foundation—the music was unlike anything the Heartbreakers had ever done. In spirit, Southern Accents recalls Randy Newman's Good Old Boys, but the music embraces everything from country and funk to straight-ahead rock and even psychedelia. "Don't Come Around Here No More," the album's big hit, is a powerful song whose hypnotically sung title is a central theme in the Deep South. The album's centerpiece is the gorgeous title song, with an opening line that resonates for folks born and raised below the Mason-Dixon line: "There's a Southern accent, where I come from/The young 'uns call it country/The Yankees call it dumb." Southern Accents is a critical but loving look at the South from the frustrated point of view of a displaced Southerner. Unfortunately, Petty would never again attempt such depth or scope.
On Let Me Up, the Heartbreakers return to the winning formula of their early-Eighties hits. Kicking off with the AC/DC crunch of "Jammin' Me" (cowritten with Bob Dylan), the band is clearly back to punching the rock & roll time clock. Aside from the rueful, mandolin-fueled "It'll All Work Out" and the surprisingly soulful "All Mixed Up," the album serves up more of the same old, same old. In 1988, Petty took a break from his Heartbreakers and joined the Traveling Wilburys, a side project featuring Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and former Electric Light Orchestra frontman Jeff Lynne. The influence of those rock & roll giants is evident on his next album, Full Moon Fever. Produced by Lynne, the songs get their charge from his big, ELO-style vocal sound and sparkling, electronics-treated guitars. The hits ("Free Fallin'," "I Won't Back Down") are very memorable, and even the filler ("Love Is a Long Road," "Face in the Crowd") sounds as sweet as hard candy. What's more, with Lynne sharing songwriting credits on most of the tracks, the melodies music is more eclectic than Petty's usual fare.
Into the Great Wide Open picks up the old formula, but with Lynne's bright pop sound, the music seems fresher. To be sure, Petty's songs have more of a George Harrison–Jeff Lynne feel to them here, and on "Learning to Fly" he even mimics Harrison's vocal style. Petty seems to be trying to age gracefully on Wide Open, and to a certain extent he succeeds, offering more acoustic guitars and less attitude. But as with most of his work, he still lacks the creative juice to deliver a fully developed album. All the dressing in the world can't make mediocre material like "Two Gunslingers," "Out in the Cold," or "Makin' Some Noise" sound interesting.
Petty's move from MCA to Warner Bros. found him working with producer Rick Rubin, who had successfully revitalized the career of the legendary country star Johnny Cash with a set of stripped-down folk music. He does the same for Petty, whose new folk and country-style songs on Wildflowers are well served by Rubin's simple production. Tracks like the title song and "You Don't Know How It Feels" recall the grace and dignity of Neil Young, while "Cabin Down Below" cribs from another of Petty's influences, Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty. The album's biggest weakness is its length. Petty has a difficult enough time realizing a normal 40-minute album; at more than an hour, Wildflowers becomes tedious.
The Heartbreakers' spotty soundtrack album She's the One continues in the vein of Wildflowers but with more of a Lindsey Buckingham pop feel. It's most notable for an interesting cover version of Beck's self-deprecating "Asshole." Echo, Petty's darkest, most desperate album, was recorded after the singer's divorce from his wife of more than two decades. With Rubin at the controls again and Petty's voice be-coming more raggedly Dylanesque than ever, these songs of sorrow and regret appear in an appropriately spare context.
The Last DJ is just as dark, but this time Petty's anger is pointed outward, at the corrupt modern record industry. For all his crotchetiness and redundancy, Petty has managed to cross over into middle age with dignity. 2006's Highway Companion, Petty's third solo album, was produced by Jeff Lynne, but the disc's sound is stripped down and simple. Songs like "Square One" and "Saving Grace" measure up with anything in his catalog, but the weaker moments on the second half drag down the entire effort.
The live Pack Up the Plantation offers competent performances of Petty's best-loved songs; unfortunately, the band brings absolutely nothing new to the material. But Petty more than made up for that half-baked live album with the four-disc The Live Anthology in 2009. Taking the best tracks from thirty years of concerts, the collection eschews obvious hits for smoking covers ("I'm A Man," "Diddy Wah Daddy") and deep album cuts ("Southern Accents"). This is truly Petty and the Heartbreakers at their finest. For those who prefer to dig a bit deeper than just the singles, Anthology is a fine compilation, too. The six-disc Playback is overkill.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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