Full Moon Fever

Tom Petty

MCA, 1989


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


The 80s were a rough and tumble decade for Tom Petty.  He opened them in a fight with his record label over pricing for the Hard Promises LP, and went on to make a trio of underwhelming studio albums that seemed to frustrate both him and his audience. 

The once-golden young singer-songwriter with the southern drawl, the Roger McGuinn guitar sound and the Mick Jagger swagger tackled these setbacks by branching out and trying new things.  In 1986 Petty and the Heartbreakers toured as Bob Dylan’s backing band.  By 1988, Petty had joined Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison to form the Traveling Wilburys.  And by the time that memorable first Wilburys album hit stores, Petty had decided it was time to cut the first solo album of his career.

At least, sort of.  For while producer/co-writer/multi-instrumentalist Jeff Lynne’s sonic stamp is all over this album, Petty’s Heartbreakers foil and lead guitarist Mike Campbell is also prominently featured, with Heartbreakers Benmont Tench (keys) and Howie Epstein (bass/vocals) as well as fellow Wilburys Orbison and Harrison all dropping in to contribute to individual tracks.

Regardless of the personnel involved, though, Full Moon Fever represented a definite break from the Heartbreakers’ 80s sound, and the change was indisputably for the better.  Mostly eschewing synthesizers and studio effects for a stripped-down, loose and warm rockabilly vibe, Petty and company made an album that to this day stands among the man’s very best work.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The power of a great one-two punch to start off an album could scarcely find a better illustration that this disc’s opening duo of “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down,” the former a wistful mid-tempo ballad with an iconic riff, and the latter a ringing declaration of purpose with a hook that could land a killer whale.  By the time this pair finishes you know that if the rest is half this good, the album is going to be great.

The rest, as it turns out, is in fact pretty close to exactly half that good.  The remainder of side one -- TP throws in a dryly witty between-side interlude to help CD listeners replicate the experience of vinyl LP purchasers -- is wonderful.  “Love Is A Long Road” might be the most underappreciated song on this album, with burning lead guitar from Campbell, hard-driving drums from Wilbury-mate Jim Keltner and perhaps the wisest lyric here.  “A Face In The Crowd” is a gentle, atmospheric ballad about the way people just appear in your life when they’re meant to.  And “Runnin’ Down A Dream” -- well, let’s just say if you’ve never blasted this one while barreling down the freeway with the top down, you really need to.

Things ease off a bit on side two, as they would almost have to.  The Byrds cover “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” is both a respectful nod to one of Petty’s musical idols and a terrific cut in its own right, another personal favorite from this disc.  After that you get to the filler, and with it, the understanding that what turns a decent latter-day Petty album into a great one is the quality of that inevitable padding.  Here you get a couple of fairly entertaining rockabillyish throwaways (“Yer So Bad,” “The Apartment Song”) and a pair of cheeky Wilbury-style raveups (“A Mind With A Heart Of Its Own,” “Zombie Zoo”), none spectacular but none boring either, only perhaps a little too easy for a songwriter of Petty’s caliber.

In addition to producing and playing on every song on this album, Lynne co-writes seven tracks and his sonic stamp is everywhere: acoustic rhythm guitar, layered harmonies and rootsy, Beatlesque vibe.  This would all become a bit much when Petty invited the full Heartbreakers lineup back in the studio with him and Lynne for the subsequent Heartbreakers album Into The Great Wide Open, but for this disc it was the right sound at the right time.  It clicked, and after a decade-long slump, in Full Moon Fever Tom Petty turned out one of his very best.

Rating: A-

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.