Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Hard Promises (MCA, 1981)

"It's a circle of deception/ It's a hall of strangers/ It's a cage without a key/ You can feel the danger."

Who doesn't like Tom Petty? Not only is he responsible for some of the greatest pop and rock tunes of the last 30-plus years -- honestly, when "American Girl" or "Freefallin'" or "Don't Do Me Like That" or whatever comes on, who changes the station? Who doesn't, at this point, own Tom Petty's Greatest Hits? Who wouldn't be happy to just let Tom Petty play the Superbowl halftime show every year?-- but he's always come across as a humble, easygoing guy who can't believe his luck. He's gracious enough to wave off the fact that the Strokes basically lifted "American Girl" wholesale for one of their biggest hits, "Last Night," saying in essence, "Yeah, well, I guess everyone borrows from somebody sometimes. That's a great song." Petty even goes so far as to basically play himself on King of the Hill, voicing Luanne's genial redneck husband, Lucky, who's drawn to look exactly like Tom Petty, lank blond hair, weak chin, and all.

And here's another reason to like Tom Petty: he once stood up to the record industry and won. After recording the Heartbreakers' fourth LP, Hard Promises, MCA announced that the album would be sold for the price of $9.98, a dollar more than the then-standard full-length price of $8.98. The reason? Tom Petty -- who had already released a string of massively popular albums and established himself as a bonafide hit maker whose songs were on constant FM radio rotation -- was considered such a quality artists that his albums would be subject to the so-called "superior" pricing (Steely Dan and Olivia Newton-John were also considered "superior" artists, by the way).

Tom Petty thought that was bullshit, man. So what did he do? He put his popularity to work and publicly slagged off MCA and the record business in general, generating such bad press for the price increase that MCA backed down and charged the standard $8.98. Nice work, Tom.

And it of course helps that the LP at the heart of all the controversy happens to rule. Because they have so many effing amazing singles and radio hits, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers don't get enough credit for crafting strong albums, whole collections that sound good from beginning to end. Hard Promises -- along with, especially, Damn the Torpedoes and the transcendent Southern Accents -- is a great example of Petty's ability to keep up the quality over the course of an entire LP and avoid any real obvious filler.

Hard Promises is a pretty dark, introspective record, with a running theme of emotional distress and romantic hazards. The LP's biggest hit was "The Waiting," and it's not hard to see why. A sad, sparkling anthem featuring Petty's signature addictive jangle and a triumphantly resigned chorus, "The Waiting" is pure platinum. The way Mike Campbell's lead guitar chimes, siren-like, as Petty croak-croons, "You take it on faith, you take it to the heart/ The waiting is the hardest part," straight slays, instantly ensuring the track's place in the rock canon.

"A Woman in Love" is a wailing character study in fragility and impending disaster, as tight a track as any Petty has ever written, with some of his most heart-wrenching lyrics. "Time after time, night after night/ She would look up at me and say she was lonely," murmurs Petty despondently. "I don't understand what she needed/ I gave her everything, she threw it all away on nothin."' Bleak and bleaker, buoyed by hazy, noir-ish organ lines and slide guitar runs. The Beatlesesque ballad "You Can Still Change Your Mind" covers similar emotional ground with a different melodic approach, scoring another victory for the Heartbreakers and adding to the LP's string of winners.

An overlooked classic, "Nightwatchman" rides an infectiously syncopated drum break (sampling was invented for this) and a tightly-wound rhythm guitar scratch as Petty paints the hilariously creepy picture of a low-level security officer, alternately boasting, "Honey, this ain't a job for a man like me," and sneering, "How safe do you wanna be?" "Something Big" comes next, a mini-epic, a snapshot of a bad situation about to get worse, awash in acoustic twelve-string minor chords and sinister narrative threads. By the time the hotel maids find Speedball lifeless in his room, it's the only way the story could end.

The album's highest light is the beautiful "Insider," a duet with Stevie Nicks. It's a lean, fragile anti-ballad, featuring some of Petty's best lyrics and a haunting melody. As the band smolders behind them, Petty and Nicks harmonize soulfully, explaining, "I'm an insider/ I been burned by the fire/ And I've had to live with some hard promises/ I've crawled through the briars/ I'm an insider." When they spit, "And I'm the one who ought to know/ I'm the one you left to rust/ Not one of your twisted friends/ I'm the one you couldn't love," it's almost too much to take. (Incidentally, uber-indie troubadours Silkworm would years later turn in a devastating, terrifying version of "Insider" on the really-quite-good Tom Petty covers collection You Got Lucky. Definitely worth checking out.)

Hard Promises, maybe because it boasted only one sure-fire hit single, sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of great Tom Petty records. But it more than stands up to anything else in his enviable catalog, a rock-solid collection of honest, hooky, emotionally resonant songs, and further evidence (as if any was needed, even back in '81) that Tom Petty is bulletproof.