For those of you who witnessed his recent gigs on Saturday Night Live and Letterman, allow me to address your initial concern: No, Tom Petty is not dying. He is simply, both physically and musically, a prehistoric gunslinger, a middle-aged cowboy who’s been doing the same thing for so long that he gives the appearance of slight fossilization. But not to worryPetty has always looked like a Cenozoic angler fish dredged up from 20,000 leagues under the sea; and he’s been shacking up in the same roots-rock garage and using the same sparse surroundings to crank out tuneful comfort food since 1976. This is what he doesand does like no one else. And, god forbid, if his new album, Echo, is in fact some sort of spiritual gallop into the sunset, well, then Petty’s personal high noon is a damn uplifting exit party.
After 1996’s She’s the One soundtrackPetty wrote 15 songs about California dreamin’ for Edward Burns’ film about New York cheatin’the golden-haired musician found a few unwelcome weeds in life’s garden: His marriage to wife Jane was coming to an awful, irreparable end; his commercial success had waned considerably since his 1994 solo album, Wildflowers; and he watched helplessly as his natural-rock contemporaries, such as John Mellencamp, desperate for a little attention, courted oh-so-hip loop gurus and techno advisers.
But despite all these negative influences, Petty’s 15-track Echo is neither a Here, My Dear swipe at his ex-wife nor an angry diatribe against modern rock’s disregard for the tenets of straight-up rock ‘n’ roll. And there sure as shit aren’t any fancy bings, beeps, or whistles messing with the acoustic-flavor framework. Instead, the Florida native’s 12th studio album, produced in part by Rick Rubin, Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell, and Petty himself, is a tribute to old-fashioned resilience, to gutting it out in the snarling face of a shitty string of days. And it soundssurprise, surprisejust like a first-rate Tom Petty album.
Backed by his workhorse HeartbreakersCampbell, bassist Howie Epstein, and piano man Benmont TenchPetty commences the journey to emotional even ground with “Room at the Top,” a place where you can “have a drink and forget those things that went wrong.” Bookended by Petty’s slow, solemn whine and whispered instrumentation, the song’s hard-pumping heart is fueled by Campbell’s shotgun riffs (stolen unapologetically from Jimmy Page’s locker), Tench’s baroque clavinet solo, and the singer’s gaining optimism. “Room at the Top” is also the first song of many here in which Petty signals a guitar or organ solo with a grunted “yeah” or a sly “all right” or a seductive “come on”; he’s been copping this call-and-response schtick for so long that it’s probably force of habit.
And the brooding pep talks just keep on coming. On “Billy the Kid,” Petty wails, “Well, I went down hard/Like Billy the Kid/Yeah I went down hard/Yeah but I got up again” and makes it sound pretty cool to be reaching yet again for your bootstraps. “Swingin’” follows the travails of a young woman who tried to make her life better. She ultimately failed, but damn if she didn’t go down “swingin’ like Sonny Liston.” Later, on “Rhino Skin,” Petty makes sure no one has missed his point by singing, “You need rhino skin/If you’re gonna begin/To walk through this world” and, even less subtly, “You need elephant balls/If you don’t wanna crawl/On your hands through this world.”
Disappointingly absent from Echo are gleeful burners in the spirit of “American Girl,” “Even the Losers,” and Wildflowers’ exceptional “You Wreck Me”the ultra cool shout-’em-outs that make his live shows such high-octane spectaclesalthough there is a smattering of bittersweet blitzes: He delivers “Free Girl Now,” the tale of a woman who has finally kicked a rotten sonofabitch man out of her life, with an incessantly wailed vocalstraight out of the swampy region of Petty’s Gainesville birthplaceand what sounds like a tsunami of Campbell’s extra-crunchy guitars; “Won’t Last Long” finds Petty daydreaming about pulling himself out of a nasty batch of the down-‘n’-outs and finding the bastards who put him there; “About to Give Out” is a mad sprint to nowhere, with Petty enjoying the wind in his face before the inevitably crappy denouement. (“I’m Davy Crockett in a coonskin town/Oh, mama, I’m about to give out,” he sings.)
In this big bag of ultimately contemplative candy, there is one truly tasty Pop Rock than can be savored without the aftertaste of melancholybut it doesn’t come from the mind of Petty. “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” written and performed almost exclusively by Campbell, is three minutes of sheer hard-ass bliss. Sounding like a cross between his blond boss and a spry Keith Richardsthere’s some unwise cross-breeding for youCampbell doesn’t so much carry a tune as mash every guttural syllable into the gravel with his steel-toed shitkicker. “I got a hole in my head/I’d be better off dead” is about as deep as this one gets. Despite its overpowering snarl, “I Don’t Wanna Fight” plays like sweet relief in the midst of such reflective neighbors.
When Letterman asked Petty if Echo’s brand of music was on the way out of fashion, Petty shifted in his seatwas that a cloud of dust I saw puff out of his Levis?and, without irony, answered, “Rock and roll is here to stay.” The crowd didn’t know whether to laugh or clap or flee in cliché embarrassment. But Petty didn’t give a shit: He simply sat there, waiting for the next question, the lower half of his thin, pasty mug jutting out into the studio audience. And Letterman, a middle-aged curmudgeon in his own right, grinned in pure admiration, looking as if he wanted to bear-hug his guest. All I could think was: Dave, buddy, I know how you feel.CP