Houston Chronicle — August 28, 2008

No Petty concern
By Andrew Dansby
Houston Chronicle — August 28, 2008

A comeback? For many adoring fans, the rocker never went away
Get too close to an artist and you’ll be the last to know he/she/they have fallen out of favor with a mainstream audience. For me, the artist was Tom Petty.

I’ve read a handful articles and interviews this year that reference Petty’s recent revival. Hip Brooklyn indie rockers Vampire Weekend covered one of his songs in concert. There was a high-profile Super Bowl gig; a Peter Bogdanovich documentary featured artists such as Dave Grohl praising him; an album he released as Mudcrutch, his first band, was nicely reviewed.

Still, I felt like a rube for being puzzled by the notion that Petty had ever left.

As a solo artist and with his band the Heartbreakers, Petty made 10 consecutive records — including an anthology and a live album — between 1979 and 1994, each yielding at least one Top 40 single. That’s a sufficiently consistent run to train a Petty enthusiast to expect every subsequent album to yield a hit.

Given Petty’s easy way with a big chorus, his knack for simple but thoughtful lyrics with tidy rhymes and the unfussy way his very, very good band has maintained a consistent sort of garage rock ethic over its run, there’s no reason to think songs from She’s the One, Echo and The Last DJ weren’t hits.

Only they weren’t.

Blame radio, blame record labels, blame fickle listeners, blame new trends or maybe blame Petty (though I certainly don’t), but prior to digital downloading there were really four ways to measure an artist’s impact: critical opinion, sales, radio play and the least quantifiable one, how they make people feel.

The first and last often do bloody battle, and the last will always win that battle (see Led Zeppelin), as it should. The middle two are a little harder to argue. When the numbers slip, clearly some swing listeners are going away.

Those who judge with their heart are just as blind to sales and radio as they are to critics’ reviews. I’ve never listened to radio much, and I didn’t really start tracking sales figures closely until about eight years ago.

So my heart failed to tell me Petty — an artist I assumed could dig catchy hits from under his couch cushions — was in need of a comeback.

Petty’s last album to top 1 million copies sold was Wildflowers, still my favorite, a loose, lovely and slightly melancholy collection of songs, produced with a little more open space than its two predecessors.

It was followed by She’s the One, the soundtrack to an awful Ed Burns film. It’s an uneven album that served up no hit singles, but some of the songs were so good I assumed they’d found their way to the charts.

Clearly I’m not alone. Julian Raymond, who produced a marvelous comeback album for Glen Campbell that was released this month, chose two Petty tunes — Walls (Circus) and Angel Dream (No. 4) — for Campbell to sing.

They turned out to be two of that album’s best songs.

“I like those because they’re really simple songs, and pretty songs,” Campbell told me, “but they say something.”

If I had a quibble with Campbell’s versions, it’s a piddly one. Or maybe it’s not. On Walls he changed a line — “I can’t hold out forever/even walls fall down” — to “I can’t hold on forever/even walls fall down.”

Perhaps it’s my obsessive-compulsive thing with details, but Petty has always been a precise lyricist. He doesn’t waste time with Scrabble words, nor is he prone to flowery faux poetry. There are metaphors, but rarely are they prohibitively cryptic. Though he was raised on ’60s rock, Petty’s writing style reminds me more of Hank Williams’.

And that line from Walls is part of a larger career narrative that documents a great many underdogs, oddballs and boys in corduroy pants watching a girl at the high school dance. Petty never really felt like a true heart-on-sleeve writer. He was never that wounded. Maybe the heart was stitched inside his vest, which he’d occasionally flash for you to see. Still, if you’re holding on to something, you already have it. If you’re holding out for something, you don’t.

For those drawn to an underdog spirit, the latter should resonate in a way the former doesn’t.

Another largely forgotten favorite, Echo (1999) was Petty’s divorce album (kind of a heart-on-sleeve album, actually), which as a subgenre is usually a bummer. But again, it had one of those big Petty hits in Free Girl Now, and another in Room at the Top. Only they weren’t. It topped out at around a half-million copies according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

I wasn’t quite as entranced with the record-industry rant The Last DJ (though it’s proved as much prophetic as a reflection of the times) and Highway Companion, released in 2002 and 2006, respectively. Still, both turned out great singles that found no radio love.

Rolling Stone’s album guide comes down hard on Petty as an album artist, suggesting he was a better singles guy. But digging a little deeper on each of his albums reveals terrific nonhits: Insider, King’s Highway, You Wreck Me, This One’s for Me, Southern Accents. His first album ended with American Girl, which was never a charting hit.

Lionizing under-loved records has gotten me in trouble before (namely a defense of Bruce Springsteen’s underappreciated Lucky Town).

Slavish fandom or enthusiasm is what separates the She’s the One champion from the guy content with Petty’s gazillion-selling Greatest Hits. Both types will be in attendance when he plays the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion tonight.

Neither will really feel like he’s watching a show on a comeback tour.

Spend enough time looking at Billboard charts and album reviews and you can become hardened to the sort of enthusiasm that makes you blind to an artist’s perceived cultural relevance or whatever you want to call that fleeting sort of fame. Right now there’s a guy out there listening to Flock of Seagulls in earnest.

And nothing against Vampire Weekend; their album is bright, imaginative and immensely enjoyable with a nerdy, outsider bent. That’s something Petty has done for 30-plus years, on the charts and off, even when I was blissfully unaware that he’d gone away.

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