'Hard Promises' and the myth of the greatest hits set
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
As an aspiring music connoisseur of 16 or so, there was always some hesitation in reaching past the “Greatest Hits” collection of an artist, no matter how familiar. There was a comfort in the songs pre-selected for my approval and arranged in a chronological order over 60 minutes on CD. How convenient!
That started to break away a bit as I got deeper into music. My Generation — The Very Best of the Who gave way to Who’s Next, followed by Live at Leeds and eventually the rest of the discography. The Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks led me to Sticky Fingers, Aftermath and onward to Exile on Main St. and Goats Head Soup. By the time I hit college, the fear of the back catalog had mostly faded. But the fear instilled by consumer-friendly “best of that guy” sets still lingered a bit.
I remember this vividly standing in a record store in Somerset, Mass., when I was 17, holding a copy of Hard Promises, the fourth album by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. This album was something of a milepost in Petty’s career. It was the last record the original Heartbreakers of Petty, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair and Stan Lynch made together. It was also Petty’s follow-up to the massively successful Damn the Torpedoes, the first album where he was clearly and obviously a rock star, and recorded with that in mind.
In 1999, I wasn’t yet aware of this entire story leading up to the release of this 1981 record. Holding this used copy, I was taken by the cover, of Petty in a plaid shirt and leather jacket standing in a record store that looked just like the one where I was then standing and browsing through the racks. It also had a certain gloss finish to the cover that was unlike most of its era and, somehow, unlike any record I’ve held since.
It was the back that gave me pause. I only recognized one song, the leadoff hit, “The Waiting.” The rest of the songs were a mystery. “Something Big?” “Nightwatchman?” “A Thing About You?” None of these had been pre-approved for my listening pleasure. What if I was disappointed?
This has become one of the many reasons I don’t care for greatest hits packages. While the best ones serve as a handy compendium for a band, tailored for both introducing the uninitiated and keeping longtime fans entertained on long car rides, they can also inhibit explorations into the chronology. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Greatest Hits had, at the time, fueled many a late-night paper and become a staple in my CD player, but in this moment, it was causing hesitation as to invest in this record or not.
Eventually (this entire exercise probably lasted two minutes), I took the plunge, tucked it under my arm with a couple of other used classics, paid at the counter and walked out with an album that quickly became a near constant companion.
Shortly after “The Waiting,” side one offers up some of the best songs of Petty’s long career of fantastic songs. “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)” is one of the great, rollicking anthems of restless heatbreak out there. “Nightwatchman” has a fantastic, stuttering rhythm that bursts at the choruses; it’s yet another bit of evidence of the Heartbreakers as the sharpest band of their time. They’re tight, they’re lean and they can explode within the song when it reaches greatest impact.
The second side steps off the accelerator without giving up any emotion or power. “Letting You Go” and “Insider” have that same desperate attitude, even if the tempo is slowed. “A Thing About You” is another slice of Byrds-inspired beauty that should have been a bigger hit in its day.
Before long, Hard Promises earned a regular spot in the turntable rotation and has maintained that to this day. It’s a complete, rounded album that is high on spirit and absent filler. Other than 1994’s Wildflowers, it could be his best effort. All this, with just one track on Greatest Hits.
Hard Promises, apart from being one of the beacons in Petty’s catalog, has become a constant reminder to step out of the comfort zone. Don’t worry about what might or might not be good, take the plunge, listen to more music. It can certainly pay off.
Sept. 9, 2012
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com