Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, released last year, was a debut album that declared almost nothing, but intimated all over the place. The music was intricate and deft, with spooky hints of everyone from J.J. Cale to the Guess Who, all played very close to the vest. Petty himself lived up to the “Mystery Man” title of one of the songs, practicing a terse and elliptical romanticism, always just out of reach. Anything more explicit might have made him banal: his very elusiveness was what gave the record most of its tantalizing, unsettling charm.
On You’re Gonna Get It!, Petty has shed some — but not all — of his cloaks. “Magnolia,” the most straightforward love song he’s yet done, maintains the mystique: “Then she kissed me and told me her name/I never did tell her mine.” But by the song’s end, it’s the girl who’s forgotten the singer, while he’s left remembering her. Everything’s open-ended enough to make you want more.
Overall, the current LP boasts an impressive stylistic cohesiveness with its predecessor, but what makes the album exciting are the fresh hints of openness and expansion just beneath the surface. The rhythms are a bit looser, and there’s a new emphasis on Petty’s rough, driving, rock & roll guitar in the mix. Some of the cuts have a Latinized swing, and you can hear bits and pieces of outlaw grit, urban blues and Los Angeles harmonies everywhere. The slippery, layered textures of sound that occasionally seemed mannered on the first record are completely under control here. The new material is, if anything, stronger, and only “Baby’s a Rock ‘n’ Roller” falls short. Like the earlier “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll,” the number’s too self-conscious a celebration to be entirely convincing: the Heartbreakers are clearly on better terms with ambiguity than with joy.
Petty omits all narrative signposts from his lyrics, depending instead on cryptic, repeated catch phrases and the doomy shifts of the music to flesh out his images. On “You’re Gonna Get It,” the story is left mostly untold. Instead, a stray piano vamp here, a drumbeat there, and jagged guitars slipping in and out of focus build to create a brooding; violent tension, while the singer sneaks through the cracks in the music. Even during the LP’s most upbeat interludes, the aura of undefined menace — coolly accepted as a fact of modern life — is always palpable in the background.
Tom Petty’s achievement is all the more remarkable because, for all his eclecticism, he’s basically working in a mainstream style, mining the obsessions and quirks beneath the sentimental conventions of Seventies pop. He’s got too much determination and integrity to be contained within a cult, and You’re Gonna Get It! is a bid to break him loose. You can’t exactly dance to the album, but it’s still great highway music. And for a restless mystery man like Petty, who’s always impatient for the next step, there’s no doubt which matters more.