'Echo' of the past

With their latest release, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers stay in character, rarely straying far from familiar touchstones. This isn't a collection of retreads, though. Sly twists keep the Petty tradmark sounding fresh

April 13, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

To Americans, there is no personality trait more noble or admirable than rugged individualism.

Other cultures may prize conformity and warn that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down, but here in the U.S. of A., we value those who march to the beat of a different drummer. We see the ability to stand one's ground as a true test of moral fiber.

Tom Petty is a case in point. Not only has he maintained a remarkably unique voice as a musician, resisting the tides of fashion and answering only to his own muse, but he takes an equally uncompromising stance toward the business side of rock and roll. Back in the '80s, Petty made a public (if unsuccessful) stand against rising record prices and recently declared that he would buck the trend toward $150 and $300 tickets by keeping seats at his shows priced at $20 or less.

In that sense, it seems perfectly in character for Petty to fill his latest album with the Heartbreakers, "Echo" (Warner Bros. 47294, arriving in stores today), with songs about people fighting back or striking out on their own. From the triumphant refrain of "Free Girl Now" to the mythic resonance of "Billy the Kid," the album is practically bursting at the seams with tales of rugged individualism.

But where other songwriters might paint their protagonists as bravely heroic, Petty seems to see his as simply stubborn. Just look at the way he opens the album. "Room at the Top" starts off as a statement of utter ebullience, all chirping keyboards and gently strummed guitars. "I got a room at the top of the world tonight," sings Petty, boasting that the view from up there is so sweet that "everyone can have a drink/And forget those things that went wrong in their life."

But rather than burrow into that cocoon of contentment, Petty's hero takes an oddly defensive stance. "I got a room at the top of the world tonight," he repeats, adding ominously, "and I ain't coming down." At which point the band breaks into a stridently martial cadence, slashing through the chords even as Petty's protagonist continues to count his blessings.

Coming from the guy who gave us "I Won't Back Down," such ingrained recalcitrance is not shocking. But there's an almost punch-drunk persistence to the songs on "Echo." That pugnacious spirit comes through most clearly in "Swingin'," a song whose female protagonist may get the short end of the stick from fate, but at least "she went down swingin'."

"Swingin'" is hardly the only song on this album that refuses to accept defeat. "Won't Last Long" takes its title from a chorus that insists, "I'm down, but it won't last long," while "Billy the Kid" is built around a chorus that starts off as a lament, "I went down/Like Billy the Kid," but adds, "Yeah, but I got up again."

Even "I Don't Want To Fight" offers its lover-not-a- fighter sentiments with such blustery insistence that it's almost as if Petty were daring the listener to take issue with this purported pacifism. But rather than push the singer over the edge, "I Don't Want To Fight" is intended to let us in on the joke -- that Petty is poking fun at his own image.

Certainly, the sound of the album is self-consciously classic. Produced by Petty and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell with the help of Rick Rubin (who produced Petty's last two releases), the album rarely strays far from familiar Petty touchstones. We get the jangly blend of electric and acoustic guitars, the tasteful keyboard underpinnings and the tightly harmonized choruses we expect, yet the disc never quite comes off as a collection of retreads. Instead, Petty applies subtle twists to the arrangements, tweaking our expectations even as he meets them. So "Free Girl Now" comes off like a sly, sophisticated version of the thrashing power pop of 1976's "American Girl," while "Won't Last Long" opens with an urgency that recalls 1989's "Runnin' Down a Dream" -- even if the instrumental textures (particularly Benmont Tench's keyboards) are richer and more detailed this time around. In other words, it sounds a bit like we've heard this before, even though we haven't.

That seems appropriate to "Echo," though. An echo, after all, is the sound that bounces back to us, and in a sense, that seems to be what Petty is playing off of -- the sound that the rest of us hear as Tom Petty. That's not to say he's succumbed to self-parody; in truth, what he's doing is more like the sly self-consciousness that has kept Bob Dylan's recent work seeming so fresh.

Don't take that stance to mean the singer has decided to cloak himself in the role of Tom Petty, Rock Star. Quite the contrary. As he sings in "No More," he's tired of playing that sort of rock star game. "Used to be a big deal," he drawls. "But I ain't gonna do it if it ain't real."

In other words, he's not going to play the game -- Petty is just going to make music that interests and amuses him. And if "Echo" is indicative of what such music can be, then it's no wonder we Americans so love stubborn individualists.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers"

Echo" (Warner Bros. 47294)

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 4/13/99

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