On The Last DJ, Tom Petty sounds like the crankiest middle-aged punk this side of Neil Young. “Well, you can’t turn him into a company man/You can’t turn him into a whore,” Petty declares on the title track that ushers in his thirteenth studio album in twenty-six years, a loosely constructed concept piece about how much the music industry sucks.
Like Young, Petty’s petulance is tempered by classic-rock romanticism. His music continues to reflect an abiding appreciation for the three B’s: Byrds, Beatles and Bob Dylan. Put the two impulses together, and you get an alluring archetype: Petty as the last gunslinger, riding out of town in search of something better. At once nostalgic and forward-looking, The Last DJ is quintessential Petty, by turns strident and starry-eyed.
When it comes to attacking the abuses of the corporate-rock monolith, Petty has some credibility. Rock & Roll has made Petty a wealthy man, but in an age of overpriced arena shows and corporate-sponsored punk tours, he has kept his tickets at the more affordable end of the rock-star spectrum, has not accepted corporate sponsorships and has never licensed any of his songs to an advertiser.
On The Last DJ, he takes on everything that he perceives is wrong with rock in the era of multinational companies. The title song is about the death of free-form radio. “Money Becomes King” argues that marketing has smothered self-expression. Petty can get heavy-handed: “When a Kid Goes Bad” is full of clichés about messed-up adolescents. “Joe” is a plodding rant that tries to skewer a self-satisfied music mogul (“He gets to be famous/I get to be rich”). It sounds like the long-lost sequel to John Fogerty’s ungainly put-down of a manipulative CEO, “Zanz Kant Danz.”
Fortunately, Petty doesn’t drown in bile. Finger-pointing lyrics become finger-snapping melodies in the buoyant folk-rock of “The Last DJ” and in the lilting orchestrations of “Money Becomes King.” In contrast to his last studio release, the stripped-down, garage-rocking Echo, The Last DJ makes its points with subtly orchestrated anthems. Petty’s drawl is relaxed yet purposeful; he longs for a better world even as he quietly mourns what’s been lost. Petty’s old chum, the late George Harrison, seems to be on his mind as he sprinkles around Beatles references, whether invoking the guitarist’s “Blue Jay Way” in “Dreamville” or strumming a ukulele — Harrison’s pet instrument — on “The Man Who Loves Women.”
After the bitter opening tracks, “Dreamville” arrives as a reminder of rock’s youthful promise. Strings tug the singer toward an uncertain destination, while horns signal the music’s unlimited possibility. The Last DJ is ultimately the “Dreamville” kid’s story, and Petty’s. “Like a Diamond” has a more mature, guarded perspective; it’s a lovely hymn to endurance, punctuated by an elegantly expressive Mike Campbell guitar solo. In “Lost Children,” Petty could be casting a protective eye on the rock & roll innocent of “Dreamville” as he ventures into the maw of the industry machine. Yet the song refuses to cave in to cheap sentimentality — the guitars tangle as if they were in a Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac blues breakdown. Similarly, the majestic chords of “Have Love Will Travel” don’t admit defeat, even as Petty acknowledges, “You never had a chance.”
The self-righteous punk returns on the finale, “Can’t Stop the Sun,” robbed blind but still defiant: “There’ll be more like me who won’t give in.” Fittingly, the Heartbreakers do the talking as the song fades. Over the hum of radio static, guitars crash and flicker, but — like Petty himself — they refuse to fade.