Review by Fred Schill
The Michigan Daily — Tuesday, June 16, 1981
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — ‘Hard Promises’ — (Backstreet) — No doubt about it, somebody wants to make sure Tom Petty remains a star. Every song on the new LP just strains to be cataclysmic, and there’s even a superstar guest appearance by the highly-marketable Stevie Nicks.
Thus the album is even more “accessible” (critical euphemism for “commercial”) than Damn the Torpedoes. Not that I’m accusing Petty of selling out, you understand. Any guy who makes the record company charge $8.98 for an album they wanted to charge $9.98 for can’t be all bad. The truth is, this one just ain’t worth it at any price.
The damn thing calls in that irritating area between disgraceful and laudatory, that sort of no man’s land in which it difficult to either like it or hate it without feeling remorse. It’s neither bad enough to inspire scorn nor good enough to inspire anything else.
For instance, there is nothing on the first side that is veritably bad. Instead it comes off as merely disappointing, and the first two songs even sound like vintage Petty. There’s a jubilant willfulness to lines like “You take it on faith / You take it to the heart” that makes “The Waiting” instantly gratifying. It’s reassuring to know that he still believes.
Similarly, the anguish of “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)” is genuinely plaintive, despite the smarmy Pablo Cruise-y refrain. There’s a wonderfully poignancy moment when Petty exasperatedly intones the finest lines of the album: “Time after time, night after night/She would look at me and say she was lonely.” Now that hurts, and the bitter irony of the dilemma is accentuated by the flawless inflections of Petty’s vocals.
But then the album begins to fall apart, as Petty desperately tries to save doomed material from its deserved fare. In general, the album simply loses its vitality. Petty’s singing becomes monotonous, as he renders love songs like “A Thing About You” with the same conviction and vigor as ballads (“You Can Still Change Your Mind”) and a couple of curious oddities about bad guys (“Something Big” and “Criminal Life”).
The songs really don’t deserve any better treatment. Only during “Kings Road” does Petty come back out of the doldrums. The tune is a rocker with a prophetic chorus: “I didn’t know which way to go/I’m a new world boy on the old Kings Road.” Amen.
The second side is hopelessly mired in Billy Joel truisms (“There’s no one as honest as someone in pain”; “You gotta be careful what you dream”) and wheezing, cliched melodies. Along the way we are treated to a latter-day Partridge Family love song (“A Thing About You”), a duet with Stevie Nicks in which Petty’s voice is reduced from wizened wistfulness to a cravenly snivel, and a pretentious piano ballad that asphyxiates on its own vacuity and ends the album most inauspiciously.
The songs just aren’t there, and Petty knows it. Thus the album lacks both substance and conviction, the songs tend to blur, and certainly none of them are as distinctive as the finer tunes on Damn the Torpedoes.
Enormous popularity tends to stifle the creativity of many rock ‘n’ rollers, perhaps because they feel an obligation to please their newly-won constituency, perhaps because they aren’t as miserable as they once were, or maybe even because fame corrupts (then does absolute fame corrupt absolutely?).
I’d prefer to believe this is simply a transition album for Petty, that is hasn’t fallen into any of the above traps, because he is currently the only talented neo-Byrds artist in evidence. You can almost hear the quirky leer of Roger McGuinn updated in tunes like “The Waiting” and “Kings Road,” but it is rendered with an invigorating freshness that has characterized Petty’s music as long as he has continued to grow. Hard Promises is the first time he has stopped.