Tuesday, July 26, 2011

CD Odyssey Disc 303: Tom Petty

After being ignored by the Dice Gods for almost 300 albums, Tom Petty makes his second appearance in ten albums. I've got plenty of Tom Petty, so this won't be the end of it either - but let's take it one album at a time, shall we?

Disc 303 is...Into The Great Wide Open

Artist: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Year of Release: 1991

What’s Up With The Cover?: It is a picture of a 1926 painting by Jan Matulka, uninspiringly titled, "Landscape". I found the cover inspiring though, and love it when musicians help expose people to art they might not otherwise see. I wouldn't have this painting on a wall in my house, but I like it, and it suits the album well.

How I Came To Know It: I bought this album when it came out in 1991 (on casette tape, if the truth must be known). Like anyone with ears, I had really liked Full Moon Fever two years prior and this was his next offering. I sold it on casette tape years ago, and then more recently bought it again on CD in the last five or six years. I don't know how I did without it for the few years in the middle, but I guess I managed.

How It Stacks Up: I have fourteen Tom Petty albums (solo and with the Heartbreakers combined). I really like this album, but competition at the top is tough so I'm going to go 6th to 7th depending on my mood.

Rating: 4 stars.

I finished listening to this album days ago, and while I could have found time to squeeze in a review the truth is I've just enjoyed having it in the car, and listening to it while painting. It is an old friend that I don't put on nearly enough.

I bought this album way back in 1991 and I don't think I appreciated it as much then as I do now. I certainly liked it and given the modest size of my music collection then, I'm sure it got a lot of play (the proof being I've been able to sing along to every song on the album). I think it was just that coming out after the huge "Full Moon Fever" it was harder to contextualize its place in Petty's discography.

In the end time has not only been kind to "Into The Great Wide Open", it has improved it. Production wise it is very similar to "Full Moon Fever" with the addition of ELO's Jeff Lynne making a huge difference. Some Petty fans don't like the more pop-friendly sounds that Lynne added to Tom Petty, preferring the raw combination of garage and southern rock from his earlier period.

I like that earlier sound as well, but artists have to continue to evolve, and the sound on this record suit the songs perfectly. It found me wishing that Lynne had come in two albums earlier and helped out with "Let Me Up (I've Had Enough)" and "Southern Accents", both of which would have benefited from his efforts.

The songs themselves are consistently strong, and I am again reminded how underrated Tom Petty is as a song writer. Thematically, he seems to be focused principally on the trials and tribulations of becoming famous. Not surprising considering in two years he had gone from an artist a bunch of people knew to an artist that everybody knew, including everybody's mother.

Petty channels this experience into a resensitizing to the subject of fame, and where many artists could have come off as disingenuous doing the same thing, Petty rises to the challenge.

The album is full of songs about the joy of pursuing your dreams, with "Learning to Fly" "Making Some Noise" and "Into The Great Wide Open" particularly notable. In the latter track, Petty demonstrates how things change culturally in twenty years. When he sings:

"Eddie waited til' he finished high school
He went to Hollywood, got a tattoo
He met a girl out there with a tattoo too
The future was wide open."

He reminds us that getting a tattoo in 1991 was hardly the commonplace thing it is today. Nowadays middle aged white collar workers routinely get them (guilty as charged) but in the day it meant taking a risk - in this case an indication of Eddie's willingness to take a risk on fame.

Later in the album, there are darker twists applied to this theme, but never better than "All The Wrong Reasons", a song about various characters so obsessed with success they abandon their own values. The upbeat and melodic nature of the track belies its dark content, a combination that musicians Mike Campbell (guitar) and Benmont Tench (piano, accordion) excel at.

Hearing Campbell and Tench adding their prodigious talents to this album was great, and as good a place to note that Petty reunited with the Heartbreakers immediately after having his biggest commercial success ever as a solo artist. Petty has never forgotten the lesson to always dance with who brought you. He ensured "Into the Great Wide Open" was a better album in the process.

"All The Wrong Reasons" has many strong lines, but my favourite on this listen was:

"Where the sky begins the horizon ends
Despite the best intentions
And a big ol' man goes up for sale
He becomes his own invention."

Or put another way, how easy it is to lose your way when you're learning to fly, and how fame can remove the familiar landmarks we rely on to stay on course. It is a reminder that when we sell out to ourselves, the first thing we do is lie to ourselves and say it didn't happen. Petty demonstrates on this song - and on this album - that he isn't going to lose his way.

At a time in my life when I'm rediscovering my own creative talents, rolling this record took on added significance. It is always a sign of good art that it can speak to you through the years, regardless of where you find yourself at the time.

Best tracks: Learning To Fly, Into The Great Wide Open, Two Gunslingers, All The Wrong Reasons, Makin' Some Noise

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