Tom Petty hates the record industry, Chuck D hates authority, and John Lydon hates just about everything. But while Public Enemy and Public Image Ltd. have had a hard time maintaining a constant career path, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have released album after album of quality rock and roll since their 1976 debut. Their latest offering, The Last DJ, is no exception; it is one more incredible record in a long line of Petty successes.
From the opening jangle run of the title track through the “Waiting for the Worms”-like finale, The Last DJ provides a showcase for Petty’s consistent craftsmanship and evolving maturity. With this new record, Petty returns to the expanded musical palette of Wildflowers and She’s the One, forsaking the live-in-the-studio approach the Heartbreakers took on their previous effort, Echo. The Last DJ is a more nuanced album, as likely to blister with a signature Mike Campbell solo as to dwell patiently in Petty’s own orchestrations. Investing each song with the appropriate attitude and mood, the trio at the heart of this band — Petty, guitarist Campbell, and keyboard player Benmont Tench — proves that they are still the best rock and roll band playing today.
It is that position of success that has always troubled Petty the most. After the last-ditch, all-or-nothing Damn the Torpedoes became an overwhelming hit, Petty responded with Hard Promises, a good album paired with a moral imperative to guarantee fans a fair price. Once the MTV-driven “Don’t Come Around Here No More” pushed Southern Accents to new heights on the charts, Petty disbanded the Heartbreakers in favor of a solo album. And while that release, 1989’s Full Moon Fever, remains Petty’s best-seller to date, it also served to alienate bassist Howie Epstein and drummer Stan Lynch from the band they had helped reach the top. With The Last DJ, these long-time Heartbreakers are officially gone, although the original, retiring bassist Ron Blair does return for a guest spot.
“I want to bite the hand that feeds me,” sang Elvis Costello on Saturday Night Live; he was then effectively removed from those same airways for daring that audacious nibble. In the same spirit arrives the concept — a “loose” concept according to Petty — at the core of The Last DJ. In its twelve tracks, the Heartbreakers follow Petty as he speaks out against corporate greed, laments by-gone America, mocks music moguls, and prophesies inevitable victory for the righteous and pure. With lines proclaiming, “All the boys upstairs want to see / How much you’ll pay for / What you used to get for free”, with accusations of his peers who play for the pay-off of “golden circles and all those vip’s”, and with his tongue-in-cheek prayer for “some angel whore / [who] Could learn a guitar lick”, it might be all too obvious that Petty is attempting to ingest the entire body that has fed his career for almost thirty years. To an extent, that much is true; The Last DJ — especially the four-song suite that opens the album — is the war cry of an old general who refuses to surrender the battle. Yet despite a sometimes asymptotic lyrical relation to the trite and over-done [witness the worst offender, “a long time ago / A million miles away / All the trees were green / In dreamville”], Petty never sounds like a Roget’s-reliant Bon Jovi. Instead, Petty’s voice — his author’s voice — sounds more and more like that of his mentor Dylan, who could turn a cliché in to the masterpiece about a simple twist of fate.
The Last DJ is earnest and straightforward, as rock and roll should be. This is no pop album, no former hero trying to recapture old glory. Detractors might claim it too simplistic, too single-minded in its initial lyrical attack on greed. But The Last DJ is clearly an expression of what Tom Petty feels right now, and his honesty — coupled with his talent — is revitalizing. Although filled with signature Rickenbacker twelve-string, the album is mostly written on piano, and these origins are especially clear on “When Money Became King” and “Dreamville”. Even the acoustic jangle of “Have Love Will Travel” features a piano backbone that betrays Petty’s commitment to six strings. In a different departure from the expected jangle, “The Man Who Loves Women” is attempt to build a wall of sound in homage to Phil Spector; with the ingenious enlisting of complete Californian Lindsey Buckingham (who also played on the Brian Wilson-esque “Walls” a few albums back) Petty demonstrates that he can just about do it all.
Just about. At some point in the recording, though unclear exactly when, Petty brought in George Drakoulias’ well-traveled production abilities to help complete the project. Drakoulias seems to play the classic “savior producer” role established by Bob Ezrin, who was brought in to complete three rather successful “concept” albums in his own right (Lou Reed’s Berlin, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile). Trent Reznor gave Ezrin credit not only as producer, but as the person who added “final continuity and flow” to his sprawling-yet-cohesive two-disc set. Similarly, Drakoulias has made the distinct songs and styles of The Last DJ sound as if they are being spun on the old AM by the same jock.
More important than the concept and the flow remain the songs. “Joe”, a vicious send-up, will be a fan favorite regardless of its original context. Having Petty play the CEO is the best corporate star turn since Roger Waters offered us a cigar. “Blue Sunday” is the sweetly tragic song that breaks your heart, makes you smile, and reminds you that the simple songs like “Wildflowers” are the heart of Petty’s genius. After just one listen, the chorus of “The Last DJ” will reside happily in your head for weeks. “Like a Diamond” and “You and Me” are heartfelt love songs in the vein of “Built to Last”. Like the sugary strumming of so many Neil Young love letters, you could live the rest of your life without them, but they are always a pleasure to hear. And “Lost Children” reminds you that the man and the band that recorded “American Girl” and “I Need to Know” haven’t lost a step since the ’70s.
It is “Lost Children”, ultimately, that Petty claims to be the secret to The Last DJ. Beyond its incendiary lick, beyond the pulsating highs and unaccompanied quiet lies the prayer for those who were “born to chase the hurricane”. As Petty has said, it is these unfortunate souls overwhelmed by the torrid nature of the world around them that is the true, albeit “loose”, concept of the album. The metaphor of the unforgiving and all-powerful music industry was the closest at hand for Petty to paint his portrait of that piece in each of us that has seen our dreams overcome by forces we cannot surmount. Petty has the maturity and depth to realize that even he has had to compromise with the same beast he struggles to vanquish. Yet for Petty and his band of Heartbreakers, the hope for victory remains. Some CEO might control things, some manager might take his money, some company might take away his microphone, but, as Petty promises in the album’s closing promise, no one “can stop the sun from shining”. Or keep Petty from releasing consistently vital records that will take no time to become favorites, albums that are born classics.