The Petty Archives

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | Playback | MCA
Review by James Hunter
SPIN - February 1996

Tom Petty's music assumes that you own several buckskin jackets and hold a Ph.D. in the Byrds. In spirit and execution, it's like people who obsess about old album photos, wondering which restaurants the subjects trekked off to after the shoot. Saved by an underlying fascination with youth culture that translates into a pretty consistently refreshed pop sense, Petty's pure rock is always there as an option, shining up your backyard when you're sick of trends and experiments.

So it's right that this 6-CD boxed set isn't principally about aesthetics or history, just Tom Petty stuff -- sessions, squabbles, deals, and, oh yeah, tunes. It's for guitar-shop believers who want to look back or bone up with a 50-track version of 1993's Greatest Hits -- then digest three or more discs that contain B sides and previously unreleased tracks, including lovable stuff from Mudcrutch, the original early-'70s Gainesville, Florida band of lapidary rednecks that turned into the Heartbreakers. This box aspires to indefiniteness, a lazy playback of smash hits, album and non-album tracks, live shots, demos, originally shelved items, and farmed-out copyrights. Many high points -- the crazed jealously of "Let Me Up (I've Had Enough)"; "Mary's New Car," equating sex and automobiles; the groove poetry of "A Face in th Crowd," and "The Wild One (Forever)," a coughed-up moment of utter genius -- remain on the original albums.

"The Big Jangle," the first CD, travels from the leathery swank of "Breakdown" the arena punk of "Refugee" to the smart-ass localism of "Don't Do Me Like That." "Spoiled and Mistreated," the second CD, covers Petty's 1983-1987 poor-little-superstar period, from "You Got Lucky" to Southern Accents and "Jammin' Me." "Good Booty" sums up the fabulous late megarock of such straight-up masterpieces as "Free Fallin'," "Learning to Fly," and "Mary Jane's Last Dance," where Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell thrilled to Jeff Lynne's and later Rick Rubin's smooth expertise, while the other Heartbreakers held their noses and stuck out their tongues. On the three odds-and-sods CDs, Petty meshes seamlessly and profitably with '70s session honchos, Stevie Nicks, and Lenny Kravitz, along others; covers a Conway Twitty tearjerker, old Elvis tunes, Charlie Rich, and Van Morrison, and even once ("Come on Down to My House") attempts to absorb Seattle grunge.

Aside from Petty's songwriting gifts and high standards, it's that chalky voice forging intimacy and risking tonsillitis in the same chorus that glues everything together. It's the voice of a rock pack-rat into everything from Elvis to Nirvana, somebody whose creative bust-ups with the Heartbreakers, as Playback booklet author Bill Flanagan insists, have meant that his exacting Brian Wilson aspirations could coexist with his band's lust for trashy abandon. He may never lord over the genres like Neil Young. But, as he continues to craft his hooky slots among the chime and the jangle, he often figures out how to hit as hard as metal. Because in his world of comfortable melodies and apt riffs, he's got everything he needs.