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“Long After Dark” lacks passion
By Jay Watson
The Red and Black — Thursday, February 3, 1983
A review of “Long After Dark” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Produced by Tom Petty and Jimmy Iovine. A Backstreet Records release.
Musically, “Long After Dark” is Tom Petty’s most self-assured, well-constructed album to date. On “Damn the Torpedoes,” Petty and his Heartbreakers darted from verse to verse with such a deft, bright vigor — restless and full speed ahead — that the listener, after repeated listenings, could get the impression that he was seeking to dash out from under the shadow of a not-complete confidence in his material, a fear that it might not work. Thus, for all its uncharacteristic optimism and its compositional and instrumental triumphs, “Torpedoes” stands as Petty’s most two-dimensional album.
1981’s “Hard Promises,” conversely, swept past its predecessor in covering more musical and lyrical ground, and also in revealing an indisputably dark side to the artist, exposing him to his audience as the creator of a multidimensional, omnifaceted canon of work, and opening him up to both landslide appeal and financial success simultaneously for the first time.
“Torpedoes” outstanding characteristic was energy; “Promises” was passion, smouldering at the core of Petty’s only great torch songs, “A Woman in Love” and “Insider,” and hardly restrained, though sometimes the music was. The fact that “The Waiting” could co-exist on a piece of vinyl with the aforementioned heart-wrenchers is testament enough to the startling breadth “Promises” had.
That beautiful, naked passion is exactly what is missing on “Long After Dark,” though Petty has honed his tonal craftsmanship and pop sensibility to its sharpest edge yet. His side-of-the-mouth delivery on rockers like “One Story Town” or “We Stand a Chance” leans into the clean slash of Mike Campbell’s guitars and Stan Lynch’s polished percussion work and elbows its way past them to rivet the listener.
Benmont Tench’s synthesizer figure on the single “You Got Lucky” — straight out of the Cars’ “Touch and Go” — is the most brutally derivative riff in the Petty catalogue, but it works unquestionably, and along with Petty’s playful vocal, is the real cornerstone of this song. The dirgelike opening to “Straight Into Darkness,” a jumble of funereal bell tones from Tench’s piano, is Petty’s bleakest instrumental concoction ever. “Change of Heart,” “Deliver Me,” and “Finding Out” form a trio of twang which challenges and surpasses anything on “Torpedoes.”
Aurally, that is. Because there’s more to a great rocker than great rock; there is emotion, and this is where “Long After Dark” pales next to “Promises.” Characteristically, Petty’s lyrics find his relationships teetering on a tightrope, hanging in the balance of powers beyond his control — namely, in a woman’s heart. But the most raw and vulnerable side to this terrifying, precipitous suspension of emotion in Petty’s world — the mood he created so masterfully in “A Woman in Love” and “Insider” — is not here.
Though he attempts a poignant and moving ballad in the album’s closer, “A Wasted Life,” Petty can’t find the emotional range (i.e. the emotional lows) which made his previous album so exquisitely bittersweet. It’s as though it is a bit too long after dark, and TP sees more of the dawn than of the black of night. Such desolate vision as I call for has its price, of course, but the demanding listener finds himself yearning for it. Though “Long After Dark” will no doubt be one of the great radio albums of the year, its promises simply aren’t quite hard enough.