There’s a peculiar challenge that faces rock & rollers who aren’t at the music’s cutting edge: the problem of how to mature. The genre’s intellectuals may challenge themselves with philosophical lyrics and ethnic rhythms, changing the parameters of their music with every LP, but those musicians wedded to what Robert Christgau’s called “the rock & roll verities” face the prospect of eternal boogie-down adolescence. The times, the tours, the business don’t support that sort of stance: what looks like heart or heroism in Chuck Berry (or Roy Brown) seems strained in Southside Johnny Lyon.
The alternative — and it’s a dangerous one — is growing up on vinyl in a kind of continuing recorded Bildungsroman. It’s dangerous because it implies that the artist is big enough to transcend the pop ideal of the frozen moment, that what counts is the singer not the song, that the audience is content to grow old right alongside. And it’s not an easy thing to do. Bruce Springsteen may have made the transition into adult wisdom on The River, yet his stage persona is straight from Born to Run, and so are the tunes the crowd cheers most. The Who has been older than their audiences for so long that Pete Townshend’s sardonic reminders have become a ritualized ingredient of the celebration — and the band still plays “My Generation.”
Tom Petty’s just old enough and successful enough to have to start grappling with rock & roll adulthood. “You don’t have to live like a refugee,” but how do you live instead? Hard Promises isn’t an answer. It’s more like a series of teaching exercises in elementary ethics, each as deceptively simple and elliptical as a Biblical parable. The luminous certainties that shaped Damn the Torpedoes (and have studded Petty’s work like gems since “Anything that’s rock & roll is right”) have given way to blind approaches, maxims for improvement and the hollowness that sets in when all the certainties come up no.
One of Hard Promises’ recurrent themes, which jibes with the album’s musical dilemma, is a reluctance to let go of the past. The problem is that the perfect sound Petty and coproducer Jimmy Iovine found for the group on Damn the Torpedoes — clear, soaring and exultant — isn’t always appropriate to Hard Promises. Yet, understandably, they’ve been reluctant to abandon the formula that worked so well on the earlier LP. Often, the new record derives its tension from the way Petty’s vocals — hard-bitten and ironic in “The Criminal Kind,” suffused with regret in “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” and “Insider” — struggle against their contexts. It’s as if the Heart-breakers have to be restrained so as not to show more confidence than Tom Petty’s willing to admit. In “Letting You Go,” the jaunty arrangement, with keyboards and percussion mixed uncomfortably high, plays the part of the easy surety the singer’s being forced to scuttle: “I always knew, one day you’d come around/Now I wonder if dreams are just dreams.” And Mike Campbell’s leaping guitar solo in “A Thing about You” has the same air of last-chance desperation as Petty’s everything-is-ephemeral-but-I-love-you lyric.
In other numbers, the band achieves a deliberation of pace that doesn’t sound as much like a somber mood devised for the occasion as it does a tethered version of the old exuberance. This pace cuts Campbell’s guitar arias to asides while throwing pressure on drummer Stan Lynch, who knows how to canter but falters in a trot. The plodding, cymbal-tinged tempo of “Insider,” Tom Petty’s duet with Stevie Nicks, drags the song down like quicksand. It’d fare better with no drums at all.
But, like much of Hard Promises, “Insider” is rescued and transfigured by Petty’s newly soulful singing. And if, objectively, his whispery croon (at first apparently intended as a scratch vocal) supports Nicks’ intermittent gasp like a friendly shoulder — well, that says a lot about the kind of vulnerability and interdependence that “Insider” is, after all, concerned with. Whether it’s flaunted like a badge in “Nightwatchman” or caught stealing through the Raymond Chandler-type terseness of “Something Big,” a gray mist of loneliness blows throughout Hard Promises, and Tom Petty’s voice always captures a hint of it even when the rest is nearly lost in the mix. Sometimes, it’s in the bittersweet edge of his old, swaggering half-sneer. In “The Waiting” (the twelve-string-and-build-to-the-bridge single that brings back the best of Damn the Torpedoes), it’s in the eager way he jumps at even the prospect of salvation, as if to say, “Get me out of here.” In “You Can Still Change Your Mind,” Petty holds out hope to another as though wishing to be redeemed by it himself.
This taste of loneliness is clearest in the album’s master-piece. “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me).” Petty’s aching, murmured vocal — leaping for and missing a falsetto in a move that sums up dashed hopes and heartbreak — is the finest thing he’s ever done. The tune’s stirring dynamics underline the contrast between the high-flying illusions of the past and hard-boiled present-day reality. A Byrds-style guitar break works like a nostalgic glimpse backward, while the chorus harmonies sweep the singer off into romantic dreams until he thuds back to earth with the words: “She’s a woman in love, but it’s not me.”
Hard Promises‘ most personal song may be “King’s Road,” with its ironic doubts about having to play catch-up professionally in all the wrong ways for all the wrong, fashion-conscious reasons, but “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” is the one that hits hardest. It exemplifies the change in Petty’s stance from the cocky pinnacle of self-sufficiency he reached on Damn the Torpedoes to the doubts and dilemmas of the current LP. In the last verse, Tom Petty screws his voice into anguished knots as he confronts the toughest possible truth: that all his charms and qualities won’t add up to the person the woman wants, that he’ll always be almost, but not quite, loved. It isn’t that he’s discovered he’s less able than in the past — just that other people don’t always fall into line. That’s not a bad first step on the road from golden boy to grown-up. It’s worth all of Hard Promises’ flaws and sighs to learn a lesson so concise.