Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Warner Brothers, 1999

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


The year was 1999, and Tom Petty was hurting.  His twenty-year marriage had broken up, his friend Carl Wilson had died too young, and his previous album (the She’s The One soundtrack) had been a commercial disappointment.

That trio of blows and creeping middle age combined to give Petty a case of the blues that could only be worked out by a healthy dose of music-making.  Echo, the resulting album, holds a unique place in the TP and the HB’s pantheon -- bluesy and contemplative in places, fiery and combative in others, it’s among his most personal and least formulaic albums.  Not necessarily one of his best, mind you -- nothing he’s done since Damn The Torpedoes has been without substantial helpings of filler -- but surely one of his more interesting latter-day outings.

Part of that interest stems from the wider range of musical approaches co-producers Petty, Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and Rick Rubin employ here.  “Room At The Top” kicks things off in anything-but-typical style, an edgy ballad of loss that Petty wrote in Wilson’s memory which starts out sparse and centered on Benmont Tench’s piano before Campbell’s guitar thunders in at the second verse.  “Counting On You” feels like a my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Wildflowers outtake, rather dusty and unformed, but “Free Girl Now” pulls you back in quickly with a driving riff and snarly lyric right out of the classic Petty arsenal. 

Batting cleanup, “Lonesome Sundown” puts Tench’s piano out front again for one of the most country-flavored tunes of the band’s career, a low-key mid-tempo tune of surprising melodic charm.  And “Swingin’” feels like classic Tom slowed down a step, a rather Dylanesque guitar, piano and harmonica shuffle that builds to a simple, muscular chorus riff.

From that rangy, reasonably intriguing opening sequence, the album -- as so many of Petty’s post-1980 discs do -- unfortunately falters.  Yes, Tom is sweet on “Accused Of Love” and plaintive on “Echo” and cocky on “Won’t Last Long,” but none of it carries the impact of his best work.  By the time you get to the startling novelty of Mike Campbell singing lead on his stomping “I Don’t Want To Fight,” the spell the opening five threatened to cast has worn off and we’re back in filler-land, with five songs to go.

The remaining play-by-play, as you’ve probably guessed, is not worth our time here.  Suffice it to say, after a promising opening Echo peters out like many of Petty’s later albums, frittering away its early promise on a series of songs that are workmanlike but nothing more.  There’s a fair amount of craft but precious little spark, as the songs sound more and more like a TP cover band than the fiery, often-brilliant bunch we all remember.  More than anything, Petty himself sounds tired, like his heart wasn’t really in this album.  He brings energy to the stronger tunes up front, but seems to recognize the remainders for what they are, and be content to just try to get through them.

Echo could have been a catharsis of sorts, but after a decent start it goes out with a whimper rather than a bang.  Let’s hope that’s never true of the band itself, but it’s going to take a better album than either Echo or 2002’s The Last DJ to put a proper cap on the storied career of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Rating: C+

User Rating: B



© 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 Warner Brothers, and is used for informational purposes only.