For years, my only real experience of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was their 1993 Greatest Hits record. That record contained the three big hits everyone knows from this solo album, though I wasn’t too concerned that these were ostensibly solo singles on a record collecting the band’s hits. I also wasn’t particularly concerned, at least initially, with the sound of these songs. I guess the evolution suggested by Greatest Hits seemed natural: from a vaguely punk, vaguely new wave but probably still heartland rock band, to unabashed new wave ’80s stuff, to overproduced heartland rock made sense to me when I was a teenager.
This record is ostensibly a tribute to Petty’s influences, and that seems borne out by the record itself, whether it’s the Del Shannon reference (I guess we’d call it a “shout out” now), to the Dylan tribute/parody, to the most explicit, a straight-up cover of a Byrds song. (There are also a few tributes I feel like I can spot but I can’t quite put my finger on them.) If the goal here is to create a pleasant celebration of the music Petty grew up with, I guess we could do worse.
I understand that, especially in light of his untimely death, the three big hits here mean a lot to people. As much as they are overproduced, I have heard these songs a million times too, and I know every word and every moment. They mean something to me too, though I wish they sounded better.
The thing is, at one point in his career, Tom Petty had more grit than this. I can’t really speak for contemporary records by the Heartbreakers – except for “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” which definitely is grittier – but I suspect one reason some of the band members were unhappy about this record wasn’t just that he was abandoning them, but the way he was doing it.
This is a slick, slick, slick record, and it’s all Jeff Lynne’s fault. (It’s all Tom Petty’s fault for allowing Jeff Lynne into his musical life, but you know what I mean.) The record comes off as a facsimile of the Heartbreakers, much like Traveling Wilburys comes across as a facsimile of the music that record celebrates. And that’s because of Jeff Lynne’s obsessions, none more glaring and inappropriate than the backing vocals that sound as though they belong on a Boston record.
I haven’t listened to enough of Petty’s records to know where this set of songs stands among his records, but I know that the production is pristine enough as to remember them less effective, and that’s unfortunate.
PS What the hell is going on with “Zombie Zoo”???