It’s difficult to offer a different perspective on an artist whose songs you know by heart. It’s even harder with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The group’s 1993 Greatest Hits album is 12-times platinum, and more than half of his albums were Top 10 sellers. By the time of his death last year, his songs were already deeply woven into the fabric of American pop and rock. So creating a new anthology of Petty’s music is already a Sisyphean task. With more than 40 years of recordings, there is so much you would have to include for an accurate picture, but also so much you could leave out, since Petty already made his own excellent self-portrait with B sides and outtakes in 1995’s excellent Playback box set.
The new box set, An American Treasure, tries to fill in Playback’s gaps: deeper cuts, alternate takes, unreleased songs he left off the first box. His widow and elder daughter assembled it with Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench with the idea of showcasing Petty, the workhorse and perfectionist. So many of his greatest hits are absent in lieu of lesser-known works and his friends’ and family’s personal favorites. Some of the numbers are gems – especially post-Playback entries like the autobiographical, contemplative “Gainesville” and the catchy “I Don’t Belong,” both outtakes from 1999’s Echo – and some are track-list stopgaps.
The producers faltered in two places when piecing together An American Treasure. Since a lavish, four-disc box set is for diehard fans only by nature, it’s safe to say purchasers already have Petty’s discography and therefore have opinions about the album cuts included here. They’re unnecessary inclusions in the age of the digital playlist (a notion, which, admittedly, would have likely made Petty shudder). Second, for all the outtakes included, it’s curious there aren’t more demos or work-in-progress takes on some of his more well-known hits – the songs that earned him his fans. Where, for instance, is the guitar riff that Rick Rubin singled out and turned into “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”? It would be nice for a deeper look into Petty’s sketchbook. (And that said, who but a diehard needs the extended “Here Comes My Girl” included here to hear the Heartbrearkers jam past the original’s fadeout?) Those quibbles aside, An American Treasure makes good on its promise of lighting Petty from a different angle.
Since it moves chronologically, the track list captures Petty’s ascendency from humble, rock everyman to refined and dignified rock everyman. There are unreleased Mudcrutch songs and an outtake from his first album, “Surrender,” but his journey is most striking on an early live recording of “Breakdown,” for a radio broadcast, which finds the band grooving before an audience so small you can hear individual hoots and hollers; they stretch the song out to nearly twice its recorded length, too, as they dig into it. Later, on a live recording of “I Won’t Back Down” from 1997, the crowd is nearly as loud as Petty. Meanwhile a live, acoustic version of “Even the Losers” shows how Petty took the general song template of his fellow Wilbury, Bob Dylan, and made it his own.
It also shows his decision making: The previously unreleased “Keep a Little Soul,” from 1982, might have been withheld because of its inherent Springsteeniness. And then there’s the early take on “Sins of My Youth,” from around 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, which is more like a Muscle Shoals rocker with its organ and wide guitar chords than the shimmery, tango-like version they released.
Some of the outtakes make you wonder why he dismissed them. “Rebels,” which opened 1985’s Southern Accents, was a song that frustrated Petty so that he punched a hole in the wall during its torturous recoding session, and it rocks anew here with an honest-to-goodness real drumbeat and a looser vibe unlike the more familiar version. “Walkin’ From the Fire,” also from the Southern Accents sessions, is a master class in Petty’s songwriting with its call-and-response, vocal-guitar interplay and drama that builds as the rhythms start to stutter. And then there is the outtake from Wildflowers: the honky-tonkin’ “Lonesome Dave,” which sounds like a marriage between Dylan and the Stones. Petty’s only excuse for abandoning it is he had so much other great material at the time – which is apparent when you compare the waltzing early versions of that album’s “Wake Up Time” with its revelations on love (“Who could have seen you’d be so hard to please?” he sings) and “Don’t Fade on Me,” an acoustic, dusky cowboy song with a strong, meditative hook with the ones that made the cut.
Tom Petty inarguably was an American treasure, and this set offers a different valuation of what that means. Beyond the chart crushers, he was an even more thoughtful poet, precise in capturing life’s pleasures and acrimonies, and a perfectionist. When you cut away the stuff that’s already out there from the set, it makes you want to know more.