Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
By PAUL ZOLLO
Exultant. A masterpiece. Tom rocks through this album with the great Heartbreakers, and does the unthinkable for most songwriters of his age: he’s written some of the best songs of his life.
Much more common, as we all know, is for a songwriter to peak in his 20s, and never match the greatness of their first work. Not so Mr. Petty, who started with greatness and has continued to ascend over the decades, while so many of his peers aren’t even in the game anymore. It is remarkable at any age to write great songs. But at this age, and after so much success, it’s triumphant.
Produced by Tom and Mike Campbell with Ryan Ulyate (who also recorded and mixed), it’s an album of much disquiet, of superstition, corruption and evil unchecked, leavened only by the limitless power of love. It’s also an album of much beauty and fury. Even in the bluesy songs comes a chorus of exultant tunefulness, reminding us that the man knows how to construct a song. He knows how to speak to our hearts and our minds at the same time. Though even those he loves, it seems, are not always on his side. The result is one of his strongest and most focused collection of exceptional songs.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Listen to “Faultlines,” a great essential new song for the uneasy emotional landscape which is Los Angeles, using the constant threat of total disaster – an earthquake – as a symbol for the disquiet of love. Which wouldn’t be great, of course, without a killer groove and great tune. It’s another gem he wrote with Mike Campbell, who gives Tom tracks to which Tom writes lyrics and a tune. Some of these have been famously passed on, and handed off to other hitmakers, so that both Henley and Hornsby have had hits with Tom’s discards. Wisely, he didn’t pass on this one, and instead created one of the best songs ever about this city, and the romances which are born, and sometimes die, here at the most western edge of this continent. As far west as you can go, wrote Jack Kerouac, before you fall into the ocean. And Tom, who lives right on the ocean, having come all the way from Florida, understands this Californian dynamic.
“See those fault lines laid out like landmines
It’s hard to relax
A promise broken, the ground breaks open
Love falls through the cracks
And I got a few of my own
I got a few of my own fault lines
Running under my life…”
By Tom Petty & Mike Campbell
It all starts with grunge. The opening song “American Dream Plan B,” (the title says it all, time for an alternate plan as that first big one doesn’t seem to be working out) is launched by a grungy electric rhythm guitar, as if Tom plugged into a tiny amp, distorting in the rawness of the night. It’s a song about endurance, about holding onto the dream against all odds. This isn’t Tom Petty narrating, it’s an American struggling with the modern American struggle – recognizing one’s own weaknesses while resolutely not giving up the fight:
Well, I’m half-lit, I can’t dance for shit
But I see what I want, I go after it
Yeah my girl’s alright, treats me nice
Ain’t nothing but a woman puts out that light
I got a dream, I’m gonna fight ’til I get it
I got a dream, I’m gonna fight ’til I get it right
From “American Dream Plan B.”
The sound is essential and great. I know well how some fans of the Heartbreakers – purists, sure – will never be happy with Steve Ferrone, and still want old Stan Lynch behind the drums. But there is no denying the great sound of Ferrone’s snare slams – except for John Molo and Ringo Starr, there is no drummer who so masters the greatness of the cracking snare backbeat – it falls right between the rhythm guitar bursts, and is eloquent and right. This is Tom Petty raw, and it’s great.
The Heartbreakers. They are distinguished for the greatness of their playing. It was good fortune – serendipity maybe – that brought deeply gifted players like Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell into his world even before he jettisoned Florida to make it big in L.A. Tench, a child prodigy, could play all of Sgt. Pepper on the organ as a kid, and those chops have just grown more soulful and resplendent over the years. And Mike Campbell is simply one of the world’s great rock guitarists, a master of burning, eloquent solos always, sometimes on slide, sometimes not – and visceral, raw guitar riffs perfect for fueling a song. Never too much, his choices always resound with purity; he’s one of the most tasteful guitarists around. Not to mention the fact that he’s a great songwriter whose singular focus on music and groove results in wonderfully powerful, if sadly dark, songs.
Then the tempo shifts and speeds up, that Ferrone snare still the engine driving this train – and we are in “Faultlines.” Built around a great and slinky riff by Mr. Campbell, this is the essence of the Heartbreakers: all momentum, forward motion, perfect for this lyric of the ground breaking open physically and spiritually. Then on the chorus, on “I’ve got a few of my own faultlines running under my life,” we get the great sweetness of Heartbreakers harmonies, and the effect of this rawness and sweetness fused is visceral and poignant. It’s a familiar sound – Tom’s reedy voice enriched by other voices in perfect harmony (being a great harmony singer always mattered as much in the Heartbreakers, Tom said, which is why the late Howie Epstein got the job) – and makes us feel good even in this uneasy panorama where the earth can open up – figuratively and literally – and swallow up your life at any moment. It is that knowledge of foreboding cataclysm which lies at the center of this work.
“Red River,” a mysterious and beautifully detailed and lovingly melodic if furious song, invites an especially superstitious woman to meet the singer at the Red River to “look down into your soul,” with lyrics that bring to mind Steely Dan’s brilliant “Two Against Nature” with its arcane admixture of spooky, black magic ingredients, spelling the length to which a soul will go to protect or inspire one’s self. We get a great American blend of the accepted holy and unholy (“she’s got a rosary and a rabbit’s foot”) all of which leads to the same place, the unceasing unfolding of our lives. The true source of peace, not unlike Springsteen’s answer, is the river itself, the flow, the force of real life:
She’s got a rosary and a rabbit’s foot
A black cat bone that treats her good
She’s got a tiger tooth and a gris gris stick
Still it don’t do the trick
From “Red River”
“Sins of My Youth” starts with a beautifully arpeggiated minor guitar chord on an electric, the ideal opening to this plaintive ballad of reflection. It’s a coming to terms song, a stated understanding that present love means more than all those endless nights of youthful indulgence, sung inside a weary but beautiful tune:
“I’m worn and wounded, but still the same
Oh, let me tell you the truth
I love you more
Than the sins of my youth…”
From “Sins of My Youth”
“Power Drunk” is one of his most explicit and forceful songs about the 1 %, those in this society that allow their own status to overwhelm any internal moral compass. With classic sinewy Mike Campbell lead lines weaving together the vocal lines, we get Tom telling us of how power corrupts forever:
He’s power drunk
Yeah, look at his eyes
Better sober up
It’s the truth within him makes a good man rise
God protect us from the thoughts in some men’s minds
From “Power Drunk”
“You Get Me High” is a great love song using this play on herbal fun to apply instead to love, replete with a resplendent Petty melody. Though the title might seem light-weight in print, when Tom sings it, it goes straight to the heart, and the meaning isn’t just clear, it is overt. That there is only one place to look for a real high, something that will last and be there for strength when needed.
“How am I gonna tell her I love her/when words don’t mean a thing?” (from “Full Grown Boy.”) Well, one way is writing a song. It’s the reason songwriters become songwriters. Without music, these words just don’t mean as much. Put a great groove and heartrending melody in there, and it suddenly means a lot. As Jackson Browne said, songwriting is a forgiving medium. Not forgiving the songwriter for not writing more lucid words, but forgiving of what is not stated. Music fills in the gaps. Something about the momentum and grace of music and rhythm combined adds a whole level of meaning to lines that, in conversation, might seem nonsensical. When he sings, in “Full Grown Boy,” “the full moon seems to know me,” we are right with him. Even if we are with him in different ways, according to what the full moon means to us. It’s the beauty of song.
“Burnt Out Town” is a half-time shuffle punctuated by perky harmonica exhortations, leading Tom to narrate with spoken words at first, answering a woman who asks him why he looks so down. The answer is this burnt out town – but this town seems to extend to all of America more than his adopted Angeleno home:
This is a burnt-out town
It’s full of dirty looks
There’s ashes on main street
And the mayor is cooking the books
Why, even my best friends are turning into crooks
From “Burnt Out Town”
As always, these dark tales are illuminated by wonderful musical moments, such as the drum and harmonica breaks here, which separate us musically and remind us, regardless of everyday American reality, of the redemption inherent in music.
It all comes to a close with “Shadow People,” which starts with solo piano and leads the listener to believe we are going to close this one, as he does others, with a piano ballad. But then the grungy and slinky guitar riffs and rhythms enter, and we are on still shaky ground, ready to break open. It brings to mind the famous vampires on Ventura he sang about back in the day in a previous incarnation, in which the city is peopled at night by dark and sinister souls. Now those shadow people are out in the open, in the light of day, darkening everything they touch with infectious fear and foreboding. It’s about people who have internalized the shadows cynically used to scare them, so that they isolate themselves ominously– even in big cities – with fear:
He’s a 21st Century man
And he’s scary as hell
Cause when he’s afraid
He’ll destroy everything he don’t understand
From “Shadow People”
It ends with an elegy, just Tom solo with an acoustic guitar, after The Heartbreakers have gone home, with this last rather ambiguous vision of the end, or is it the beginning?
Waiting for the sun to be straight overhead
’Til we ain’t got no shadow at all
It’s a beautiful and portentous ending to one of his greatest works.