An American Treasure highlights the pure power of Tom Petty’s music
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
What do we want from music? Do we need it to pass the time or fill the gaps in conversation, or is it more?
For anyone reading this, it’s probably more. And for me, it’s the search for those moments when music hits with just the right weight, where a song sounds like the most important piece of art in the world while it airs out of a stereo. I had one listening to An American Treasure, a new box set celebrating Tom Petty’s life and work, and I still feel like I’m reeling a bit from it all.
Here it is with “Straight Into Darkness,” a live-in-the-studio rendition from 1982. It begins with a count-off of one, two, one two three four, and off it goes, deliberately winding its path through the ears and down to the soul. The lyrics are earnest and honest, the music had a punch and the voice is so real.
It wasn’t the first fantastic, knock-down moment on this set that I heard. But there was such a force behind the performance that I realized I was listening to something that I’d replay as long as I could. It was as good as anything I’d ever heard — not just by Petty, but truly anything. If it sounds like I’m overreaching, call it an aftereffect of over-enthusiasm. But that’s how it feels. And it’s how so many of his songs felt to so many people during his 40-year career.
It’s been a year since Tom Petty left us, just a few days after the conclusion of another stunning tour with the Heartbreakers. And the void has been acutely felt. Projects like a new album and a deluxe reading of his 1994 Wildflowers suddenly went up in the air. His family and band were left reeling. Fans began buying and playing his music with a renewed fervor, all in an effort to fill the space that he’d occupied so consistently, so effortlessly.
Here’s where An American Treasure helps that along. Following his entire career, the box set — compiled by his daughter Adria Petty, wife Dana Petty and bandmates Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench — sets out to trace a path through his life’s work without leaning on the radio songs that made him such a presence. His time in Mudcrutch is chronicled alongside sidetrips with Stevie Nicks and the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, but his work with the Heartbreakers and solo of course make up the overwhelming bulk. The common thread is his songwriting, which the liner notes make sure to stress. Petty was most proud of his ability to write in a way that connected, and all the music here certainly meets that goal.
It starts immediately with “Surrender,” a song recorded for his first album that never made it but did become a live favorite. It’s likely not a coincidence that the box starts with this — to think that a song this strong couldn’t even crack the final tracklist for 1976’s Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers stresses just how strong all his material was. It also underscores the importance of opening up his vaults to the public. This is the first glance, and it starts out with a bang.
And there is no shortage of gems to be found. They can’t all be chronicled here, but there’s a jarring version of “You’re Gonna Get It” that was augmented with strings, and alternate take of “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” which is even more snarling than its released counterpart. “Keeping Me Alive” was another song that should’ve found its way onto 1982’s Long After Dark but instead surfaces here, and it’s as good or better than anything that made the final album.
The live tracks are so strong, it’s easy to wonder how they didn’t crack 2009’s The Live Anthology. Particularly, a pair of tracks from disc two, including “King’s Road” and “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me),” demonstrate how tight and raucous Petty and the Heartbreakers could be on any given night. These were not note-for-note retellings of the songs from the albums, they were living, breathing compositions that were played with equal parts skill and showmanship. And Petty’s personality shines through even between the songs, where a “Clear the Aisles” aside finds the frontman directing traffic and warning that bad behavior will mean the end of the night.
Even the familiar, previously released tracks have a bit of a new spin. “Grew Up Fast” from 1996’s She’s the One was always closer to the edge for a Petty track, but any trace of gloss is removed via this remastering job, leaving the guitars and drums bursting and frantic. All that edge really rears its head on the latter half of this set, when Petty stood most firmly in his standing and his beliefs.
From about 1994 until the end of his career, he stopped trying to please anyone but himself, and some of his greatest work was a result. He changed drummers and labels before Wildflowers, and outtakes from that record — an acoustic reading of “Don’t Fade On Me” with different lyrics, and a full-band stomp through “Wake Up Time” — show him confidently pursuing this new direction, utilizing the studio space and his Heartbreakers to its greatest potential.
How naturally skilled he became in his craft is readily apparent in those later years as well. “You And Me,” stripped back to just him on guitar and Benmont Tench on piano, shows just how expertly that song was composed. Not long after, an older track like “Southern Accents” is performed with much more grace and power than its studio counterpart, with about 20 years separating the recordings. And its penultimate track, an alternate version of “Like a Diamond,” plays as though it should’ve found a home on the Beatles’ Abbey Road. It’s somber but still hopeful, like so much of the best of Petty’s work.
And that’s the purpose of a collection like this. Group it with 1993’s Greatest Hits and The Live Anthology, and the trio could serve as a comprehensive and fully representative example of how great Petty was throughout his entire career. But it almost rises above those two prior anthologies. In its own way, it’s a love letter from Petty’s band and family back to him, but it also serves as an illustration of everything he did well, as concise and thorough as four discs can be. It works as an introduction as well as a gift for hardcore fans already in the know. For the faithful, there are any number of moments that will hit like a full-on revelation, and for anyone new to his work, there’s no shortage of the same. For an artist who worked as hard to be as welcoming and accessible to his audience as Tom Petty had, it’s all the more fitting.
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com