Hard Promises

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

MCA, 1981


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


It’s interesting to consider the parallels between Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen’s careers. Both grew up on the East Coast – Petty in Florida and Springsteen in New Jersey – but had their plain-spoken, rootsy music come to be labeled as “heartland rock.” Both are singer-songwriters of the first order whose backing bands are rightfully almost as famous as their leader. And both decided that immediately following their breakthrough third album was the right time to wage an epic battle against the people dumb enough to continue trying to tell them what to do.

In Springsteen’s case the conflict was with his first manager/producer Mike Appel; the three-year gap between his 1975 breakthrough Born To Run and its follow-up Darkness On The Edge Of Town was due almost entirely to legal maneuvering between the two antagonists (Springsteen eventually won).

In a move surely at least in part inspired by Springtsteen’s battle, after the resounding success of 1979’s Damn The Torpedoes made Petty a star, he promptly went to war with his own label for greater control over his career. The chief sticking point that emerged over time was pricing; MCA had just decided to raise album retail prices for “A-list” artists by a dollar, to $9.98. Petty objected to Hard Promises getting the higher sticker price and withheld the album for months until MCA finally gave in and released it with an $8.98 pricetag.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The kickoff track and leadoff single from the resulting LP seemed to play off of the conflict. “The Waiting” features one of Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell’s signature jangly riffs, a terrific hook anchoring a song about perseverance that declares rather pointedly that “The waiting is the hardest part.”

Next up is “A Woman In Love,” a song that’s always stuck in my craw a bit. This one should have been home run; the lyric cuts directly to the heart of the matter (“She’s a woman in love / But it’s not me”), and the arrangement allows plenty of space for Benmont Tench’s moody organ work, but somehow the end product comes off just a bit too dry and calculated, like a gem that’s been polished more than it needed to be.

The next few tracks loosen things up considerably, as Petty sets aside relationship riddles for a few minutes and indulges in character-driven vignettes about a laconic “Nightwatchman,” a pair of petty criminals plucked straight from an Elmore Leonard novel (“Something Big”), and his first trip to London (the steady-rocking and quite fun “Kings Road”). Ever the entertaining story-teller, here Petty’s charm is fresh and you can hear the wink in his voice on the punchlines.

The second half of Hard Promises sees a noticeable dropoff in the strength of the songs. The best to my ears is the ringing “A Thing About You,” which brings back some of the sass and snap of Petty’s first two discs. Less interesting is the rather somber “Insider,” from which the album title is taken, and on which Petty duets with Stevie Nicks, returning the favor after Petty and Campbell gave her the dynamite single “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” for her solo debut Belladonna

The other notable thing about Hard Promises is that it’s the album where the downside of Petty’s prodigious songwriting talent first became apparent. While he’s incredibly prolific, with Hard Promises Petty began to experience diminishing returns, i.e. fewer “great” songs and more “pretty good” ones. With one exception – his 1989 solo debut Full Moon Fever -- he would never again issue an album with as many essential songs or as few unessential ones as he did with Damn The Torpedoes. From this point onward, an unhappy word inevitably creeps into the reviewer’s vocabulary when describing Petty’s albums: filler.

That doesn’t change the fact that Hard Promises is one of Petty and band’s stronger albums, from the magnificent hook that kicks off “The Waiting” through the muscular, Stones-meet-the-Byrds bounce of “A Thing About You.” This might not rank in his top three albums, but it’s not far down the list.

Rating: B+

User Rating: A-



© 2008 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of MCA, and is used for informational purposes only.