Twenty-three years. Twelve studio albums. One sound. Even as peers such as Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp have shaken up their formulas by tinkering with dance mixes or solo acoustic folk songs, even as forerunners such as the Rolling Stones have hired hotshot producers like Danny Sabre to gussy up their recent work, Tom Petty remains unflinchingly loyal to the sound of Sixties-era Stones and Byrds.
By refusing to do anything else, Petty and the Heartbreakers define classic guitar rock better than just about any working band. The straw-haired singer obsessively revisits the same territory in album after album, with the same cast of backing musicians; guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench have been with him since the Heart-breakers’ debut, in 1976, even guesting on Petty’s “solo” albums. If anything, their latest album, Echo, is the most striking reassertion in years of what Petty and the boys do best. After a couple of recent albums — especially Wildflowers (1994) — on which Petty sounded like he was easing off the pedal and settling for a midlife career of singer-songwriter introspection, Echo puts the Heartbreakers back where they belong: in the garage and in front of the amplifier stacks.
That can be a lonely place. From the opening bars of the first song, Petty touches on a theme that recurs on most of his albums: independence in a world that won’t easily allow it. “I’ve got a room where everyone/Can have a drink and forget/Those things that went wrong in their life,” he sings in a tone barely above a whisper. It’s a comforting voice, but then it hardens: “I’ve got a room at the top of the world tonight/And I ain’t comin’ down.”
“Room at the Top” sets the tone for the rest of the album, with the singer in the role of the perpetual outsider. Throughout Echo, life is a constant struggle to define what matters. On “No More,” Petty vows, “I ain’t gonna do it/If it ain’t real.” A few songs later, on “One More Day, One More Night,” he reiterates his resolve: “God, I had to fight/To keep my line of sight/On what’s real.” In grasping for “what’s real,” Petty sometimes sounds like an anachronism, with shout-outs to heroes from past generations: movie cowboy Roy Rogers, late jazzmen Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, boxer Sonny Liston. Surely Petty realizes that those references are next to meaningless for the majority of people who buy rock records these days; perhaps they are his way of saying something about the increasingly unfashionable style of music he plays.
Which makes Echo feel, above all, like a defiant album. Its most ferocious moments — “Free Girl Now,” “Won’t Last Long,” “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” “About to Give Out” — sound like close cousins to “Come On Down to My House,” a Nirvana-inspired surprise knockout that surfaced on the 1995 Petty box set, Playback. This music drills home one unmistakable point: If rock is becoming a dead language for a new generation of listeners obsessed with hip-hop, no one bothered to tell Petty’s band about it.
“Free Girl Now” sounds like a band was handed electric guitars after six months stuck listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber; the Heartbreakers don’t so much play the riff as pound it gleefully into the concrete. Petty uncages the nasty Florida drawl first heard on “Breakdown,” from his debut album, Tom Petty and the Heart-breakers; his voice drags a teasing, insinuating half-step behind the walloping, single-minded four-to-the-floor rhythm. Even more elemental is “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” in which Campbell wrenches the lead vocals away from Petty and sounds like he’s in no hurry to give them back. On “Won’t Last Long” and “About to Give Out,” Petty returns the favor, a stray cat yowling with pleasure even as the bloodhounds close in.
What gives Echo its resonance, however, is the softer stuff. These tunes also pack a bite, in large part because the unfussy production (by Petty, Campbell and Rick Rubin) never speaks louder than the songs. Campbell focuses on riffs rather than solos, with bluesy guitar accents on “Counting on You” and rich, Byrds-ian progressions on “Accused of Love.” Tench’s piano and organ fills hover in the spaces between chords. The more loping the groove, the greater the relish Petty takes in the sound of his voice — a fine, Dylan-ish whine on the title song, a sly purr on “Rhino Skin,” a gunslinger’s cocky kiss-off on “Billy the Kid.”
Throughout, Petty suggests that rock reached its apex in about 1968 and there’s no point in trying to reinvent it. Though one could fault Echo for its lack of innovation, that would be missing the point. This isn’t the sound of rock & roll vigilantes merely rehashing their past. It’s Petty and the Heart-breakers standing their ground with wise-ass grins and loud guitars, past the point of caring about what anyone else thinks. This is a band smart enough to know what else is out there and sure enough of itself not to be particularly concerned or threatened by any of it.
“Swingin'” takes that won’t-back-down stance with its heavy descending chords and craggy guitar solo, its howling-wind harmonica and elegiac background harmonies. It’s Petty’s salute to a young woman who dared to get the hell out of town instead of sticking around to meekly meet her fate. “She went down swingin’,” he sings, as if that were the noblest thing anyone, or any band, could do.