Though he’s a major American rock & roll star, Tom Petty has yet to produce the kind of classic album artists of his caliber are supposed to make at least once in their careers. And while Into the Great Wide Open may not be it, it’s the closest he and his band the Heartbreakers have come in nearly 15 years.
You can hear it yourself. Petty’s first two albums — 1976’s Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It! — have both just been re-released on Petty’s own Gone Gator record label, and still stand as his best work, effortlessly combining catchy melodies and unpretentiously raucous rock & roll. The follow-up, 1979’s Damn The Torpedoes, went triple platinum and made Petty & the Heartbreakers an arena attraction, but it also signaled a dulling of Petty’s grasp of the pop hook that — success or no — has simply made his music not as interesting as it used to be.
Until now, that is. Into the Great Wide Open is a surprising return to form. In some ways, credit for Petty’s renewal must go to Jeff Lynne, guiding Light in the Electric Light Orchestra, and, along with Petty, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and the late Roy Orbison, a member of the Traveling Wilburys, the only so-called ”supergroup” in rock’s history to make decent records. Lynne, the Wilbury with the greatest ear for pop — he’s written more hit singles even than Harrison — produced Into The Great Wide Open, and his mark is all over it.
And while he also participated heavily in Tom Petty’s 1989 solo album, Full Moon Fever — producing and cowriting seven of its songs — something’s different this time. First, and most obviously, the songs, eight of which Petty cowrote with Lynne, are better. ”All or Nothing,” with its stinging, Lennonesque vocal and arrangement, resonates with much the same intensity as Petty’s 1978 album-rock radio staple ”Breakdown.” Other tracks almost as good include ”Too Good to Be True,” ”Kings Highway” and ”Two Gunslingers.” They’re all delightfully hook-filled, which may not sound like a big deal, but for Petty — whose hits, like his 1985 ”Don’t Come Around Here No More,” can be more memorable for their videos than their music — it’s what he has direly needed for far too long. And Petty himself, who at his worst has tended to bray rather than sing, has never sounded fresher or more pleased with what he’s singing (though with lyrics like ”rebel without a clue”…sorry, Tom, even Meat Loaf’s lyricist used that cliché, in an overwrought piece of pop fluff he wrote for Bonnie Tyler five years ago). Petty may not be a Springsteen or a Dylan — he may not have a Born to Run or Blood on the Tracks in him — but who does? I always thought that guys like this start out hot, get famous, get lazy, and then disappear. They’re not supposed to actually get better. B+