An American Treasure

Tom Petty

Reprise, 2018

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Thomas Earl Petty’s remarkable career and achievements speak for themselves. As I wrote after he passed, “Petty’s best songs feel timeless, as if they had always been there waiting and he just happened to possess the proper magic to pluck them from the ether and bring them into the world.”

An American Treasure is a four-disc compilation assembled over the course of the year following Petty’s untimely death by his family (daughters Adria and Annakim and wife Dana), band (guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench), and longtime Petty engineer/co-producer Ryan Ulyate. Like the man it memorializes, this set is uninterested in taking a conventional approach, preferring to make up its own rules. Rather than regurgitate the hits that every fan knows by heart and owns multiple versions of already, An American Treasure focuses on collecting unreleased studio tracks and live cuts, alternate takes of familiar songs, and semi-obscure album tracks. The hits, when they do appear, are all live versions or alternate takes, often substantially rearranged.

The result is a collection that provides great value for the longtime fan while delivering a virtual alternate history of Petty’s career, revealing songs left behind and songs reimagined, while giving new life to deep album tracks that both reveal undiscovered elements in this fresh context, and provide invaluable context for the unreleased and alternate-take tunes surrounding them.

The discs are divided—though not strictly sequenced—chronologically, with disc one representing the ’70s, disc two the ’80s, disc three the ’90s, and disc four the 2000s and 2010s. Beyond that basic division, each disc is a fascinating jumble that reminds you again and again what a remarkable and prodigious talent Petty was—as a songwriter in particular, though also as a singer, player, and bandleader.

Despite not being co-billed, The Heartbreakers are an essential component of this collection from start to finish. Campbell and Tench in particular played on most of Petty’s “solo” work and in fact on almost everything he ever recorded, dating all the way back to his pre-Heartbreakers group Mudcrutch (a group he would revisit in latter days, that’s also represented here). The Heartbreakers’ playing is just so damn tight and yet full of fire as they bring song after song to life; they are one of the great backing bands in the history or rock, period, full stop.

Disc one opens with “Surrender,” perhaps the band’s most iconic “lost” song, tried out in recording sessions for each of its first three LPs, played live for decades, and first heard by many in a chiming, Byrds-y version recorded for 2000’s Anthology: Through The Years. It’s a track brimming with the kind of “Born To Run”-era urgency that might have made it the lead single on a less gifted band’s debut; the fact that a cut this strong lingered on the fringes for 40 years speaks volumes about the quality of Petty’s body of work. Here Campbell and Tench return to the beginning, releasing for the first time one of the original 1976 studio takes, described by Campbell in this set’s extensive liner notes as “youthful and full of hope and joy. There’s so much heart in that song.”

The rest of disc one hopscotches through early live cuts—including Petty introducing “new” song “Listen To Her Heart” before they’d started recording You’re Gonna Get It, plus punchy takes on “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” and “Breakdown”—plus alternate versions of half a dozen tracks from those first three classic albums, and a pair of terrific album cuts in “The Wild One, Forever” and “No Second Thoughts.”

Interestingly enough, this pair, the only previously released tracks on disc one, end up as highlights. The former, one of Petty’s most cinematic, Springsteenesque songs, and the latter, a plaintive acoustic number buried amongst bigger hits on Petty’s sophomore album, shine here in a way they never could before as the transformed context spotlights the quality of the songwriting and performances. Similarly, the alternate takes of songs like “Here Comes My Girl,” “What Are You Doing In My Life?” and “Louisiana Rain” evidence changes that are mostly subtle, but force you to concentrate on the nuances of each song in a way that refreshes even the most familiar ones. Disc one closes with the oldest song in the entire set, a bluesy, romantic ballad (“Lost In Your Eyes”) that dates back to Petty’s pre-Heartbreakers sessions with Mudcrutch.

Disc two reinforces every impression left by disc one. The unreleased ’80s tracks—the appropriately soulful “Keep A Little Soul,” the rather my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Full Moon Fever-ish Long After Dark leftover “Keeping Me Alive,” and the urgent “Walkin’ From The Fire”—offer further evidence of Petty’s steady songwriting hand and deep affection for roots rock. The live cuts include a magnificent acoustic reimagining of “Even The Losers” and a powerhouse rendition of “Kings Road.” And the alternate takes and album tracks feel like they’re filling out and completing what was already a vast tapestry of work, with highlights including a 1984 demo of “The Apartment Song” with Petty and Stevie Nicks, and alternate takes of “Rebels,” “The Best Of Everything” and “The Damage You’ve Done” that strip away many of the ’80s production trappings that hampered Southern Accents and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), allowing the songs to breathe.

Meanwhile, the superb liner notes, featuring contributions from both band and family, offer Petty’s widow Dana the chance to tell the backstory behind the lovely, wistful “The Best Of Everything,” which turns out to be as poignant as you could possibly hope. Disc two closes with a forceful early take of “King Of The Hill,” Byrds co-founder Roger McGuinn’s collaboration with Petty; it’s not a spectacular song, but it’s definitely special hearing Petty harmonize with one of his musical idols.

Disc three charts moments high and low from perhaps the most difficult decade of Petty’s life, which found him saying goodbye to a two-decade marriage and a pair of longtime bandmates. Opener “I Won’t Back Down,” one of a handful of hits to be found in this collection, is thoroughly transformed, the one-time Big Single presented in a stripped-down, deliberate live version that distills all the bluster out of the song, leaving only a calm, steely determination.

Disc three’s unreleased material includes an affectionate nod to Petty’s hometown (“Gainesville”), a pull-out-the-stops rockabilly raveup (“Lonesome Dave”), and a wounded rant about the downside of fame (“I Don’t Belong”). Tracks from the Jeff Lynne-produced Into The Great Wide Open include the poignant album track “You And I Will Meet Again” and live versions of the title track and “Two Gunslingers” (plus Tench’s rueful observation in the liner notes that he was barely on the album because Lynne hated Hammond organ).

Most of this disc’s highlights come later. From Wildflowers, we hear shimmery album tracks “To Find A Friend” and “Crawling Back To You”—each sounding better than ever in this context—complemented by a superb alternate take of “Wake Up Time,” a heavier early version with punched-up guitars. From Echo, we get a pair of album-track gems in “Accused Of Love” and “Lonesome Sundown.” The disc closes with a superb alternate take of Wildflowers’ memorable acoustic-duo number “Don’t Fade On Me,” done in a fingerpicking style Campbell says was modeled after Crosby, Stills & Nash. This version is different but no less outstanding, a fresh illustration of the same elusive magic.

Disc four finds Petty applying all the lessons he’s learned to an outstanding set of late-career songs drawn from a remarkable diversity of sources: live tracks, alternate takes, virtual demos, and album tracks drawn from a solo album, three albums with the Heartbreakers, and two with the latter-day reformation of Mudcrutch. First we hear Petty and Tench jamming on a shimmering in-studio acoustic duo version of The Last DJ deep track “You And Me,” followed by DJ’s standout tune, the gorgeous, Dylan-influenced midtempo ballad “Have Love Will Travel,” an inspired choice. Soon we’re on a “Bus To Tampa Bay,” an unreleased gem from the Hypnotic Eye sessions featuring especially rich Hammond organ form Tench.

A pair of cuts from Petty’s final solo album Highway Companion—a muscular live version of “Saving Grace” and terrific album track “Down South”—give way to a pair of superb live cuts from a 2006 hometown show in Gainesville, a stately, heartfelt rendition of “Southern Accents” and a luminous take on “Insider,” once again featuring Stevie Nicks. The homestretch is highlighted by the first-ever studio release of swamp-rock powerhouse “Two Men Talking,” complete with psychedelic mid-song jam and great lines like “When the hard times come, you’re gonna see who’s got your back.” From there we get stellar Hypnotic Eye album track “Fault Lines” and a passel of latter-day alternate takes and Mudcrutch tunes (“Sins Of My Youth,” “Good Enough,” “Save Your Water”), before the set closes with a sparkling, more fully orchestrated alternate take of Last DJ deep track “Like A Diamond” and a powerful live rendition of the last new song Petty released in his lifetime, the closing track from Mudcrutch’s 2016 album 2, the understated yet anthemic “Hungry No More.”

The impact of the music heard here—four decades of brilliance distilled into 60 remarkable tracks—is enhanced by top-notch packaging, a 52-page bound booklet featuring terrific photography and the aforementioned, intimate and extensive liner notes from Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Dana Petty and Adria Petty.

This is a career-spanning Tom Petty collection with no “Free Fallin’,” no “American Girl,” no “Refugee,” no “The Waiting,” no “I Need To Know,” no “Runnin’ Down A Dream” or “Learning To Fly” or “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” The fact that it is nonetheless thoroughly impressive, absorbing and moving—a bravura master class in writing, singing and playing American rock ‘n’ roll—proves the truth behind the bold claim lovingly asserted by this set’s title. Tom Petty was indeed An American Treasure.

Rating: A

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