Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
(thru Warners Music)
If you think of, say, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan as superpowers of a certain type of music, the sort of artists who others pay a lot of attention to and who are capable, in and on their day, of upsetting the existing boundaries of musical alliances, then Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are pretty much a middle power. Not many people hang off every manoeuvre they make, and any they do make is unlikely to cause a revolution or upset the geo-musical situation, but they tend to punch above their weight and can always be relied upon as good international citizens. They are often there in a supporting role, providing solid back up to the big boys, but with enough independence to make them interesting in their own right. What I’m trying to say, obviously, is that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are Australia.
This new album is straight-up rhythm and blues and it is wonderful. It isn’t going to make you want to emigrate or rethink what it is you thought you knew about good music, but it might make you want to linger awhile in the realisation that sometimes life on the periphery can be just as good as life at the centre.
The album starts with a swinging, rocking blues called ‘Jefferson Jericho Blues’. It’s a nice opener, a joint-loosener for some of the gems that are soon to follow. The first of those is the very next track, a kind of interesting, shimmering and, dare I day it, gentle number bathed in minor sevenths and underpinned by an almost jazz-like bass line and gorgeous bit of Hammond organ popping along in the background.
It’s all very wistful and mid-sixties and therefore more or less contradicts what I just said about the album being straight-ahead R&B, but I prefer to think of it as a paradox rather than a complete contradiction. What it also does is showcase the first — but not the last — great guitar solo of the album. A really tasteful, wah-wah tinged couple of bars that shifts the song into a higher gear.
And here’s the thing: this is first and foremost a guitar album with lots of soloing in the grand tradition, and god I loved hearing it.
The next song, ‘Running Man’s Bible’ is back to a more trad R&B thing and is led by a punchy guitar riff (though riff probably overstates what is in fact just some syncopated chord play). But again, the thing to note is that guitar is front and centre and it is nice to see.
I won’t go through the entire track list, but there are two other songs I want to highlight.
First up, track 14, ‘Something Good Coming’. This is close to my favourite song from any album by anyone for the whole year. In one sense it is nothing special, but sometimes you hear a song that despite on the surface being nothing more than a rock-n-blues ballad comes together in a way that makes it transcendent. At it’s heart it is a fairly simple waltz-time tune of arpeggiated chord play, but Petty sings it really well and the gist of the lyrics — full of hope and goodness — contrast poignantly with that big fat Em minor that underpins the song. As an added bonus there is a lovely bit of bottleneck at two points in the song. You could barely call it a solo, but it is a sweet sound that adds another layer to the track.
It is that rare thing: a song that is greater than the sum of its parts, the sort of thing established artist pull off occasionally when everything just comes together.
The other stand out for me is the final track, ‘Good Enough’. It’s a big, solid blues number, not a million miles from the sort of thing Led Zeppelin did with ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ or, say, Deep Purple did with ‘Mistreated’ or, probably best comparison, what Gary Moore did with ‘Still Got the Blues’. Again, it hardly breaks new ground — it isn’t the sort of subtle monster that ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ is, or the sort of riff-based outing that ‘Mistreated’ is — but it does what it does with panache and energy and again, there is some fine guitar soloing in there. Great way to finish an album.
Like I said at the beginning, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are never going to change the musical landscape, they are never going to rule the world, but this is a fine album played by seasoned musicians who know their way around in a way that reflects their long experience. You could do much worse than get your passport stamped in the Republic of Petty.