Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Echo Reconsidered

I’m a pretty big Tom Petty fan.  I’ve seen him in concert three times, the first on the Into the Great Wide Open tour (front row center, and I got Petty’s guitar pick at the end of the show!), then again for Wildflowers, and then on a tour where he just played greatest hits a few years ago.  It’s safe to say he’s one of my favorite musicians.

If I have to rank Petty’s albums (both solo and with the Heartbreakers), it’s pretty easy.  Wildflowers is sitting pretty at the top, followed closely (in no particular order, ’cause they’re too close to call) by Full Moon Fever, Damn the Torpedoes!, and Into the Great Wide Open.  Somewhere further down the list, after Hard Promises and Southern Accents but before Mojo and (shudder) The Last DJ, there’s Echo, the 1999 follow-up to Wildflowers (and the soundtrack to She’s the One, which was of a piece with Wildflowers).

When it initially came out, I enjoyed the record, but wasn’t all that impressed with it.  Wildflowers had set a ridiculously high bar for Tom Petty albums, after all.  You weren’t going to top that thing.  I really enjoyed “Room at the Top,” the album opener, and a few other tracks along the way, but it’s very telling that, with most Tom Petty albums, I can sing along to every single song without a problem.  But I can’t do that with Echo.  I know the choruses (Petty’s choruses are always catchy as hell), and I’m vaguely familiar with the songs, but they haven’t become ingrained in my brain the way, say, the songs from Into the Great Wide Open or Full Moon Fever have.  The album always felt too long: it’s 15 songs, over an hour long, and just felt too full.

But when I got into the car a few days ago, and decided I wanted to hear Echo, it was an opportunity to reevaluate the album and see if an older, wiser (?) Charlie could appreciate it in a way that 19-year-old me could not.

For starters, “Room at the Top” is still freakin’ awesome and a great opener.  It’s anthematic, hopeful, heartfelt, and just all-around great.  “Counting on You” is a solid, classic Petty song, and “Free Girl Now” rocks as hard as any of the rockers on Wildflowers.  “Swingin’,” with its extended baseball metaphor, kind of drags, but things pick up real quick with “Accused of Love,” which was one of my favorites from the album back in the day and holds up remarkably well.  The title track is a little too plodding for my tastes, but it’s not a bad song. “Won’t Last Long” is a tune in the same vein as “Won’t Back Down,” a statement of defiance and resilience.  “This One’s For Me” is a fun, strummy song that feels like classic Petty songwriting.  “About to Give Out” has a driving beat and is a lot of fun.  “Rhino Skin” is a weird song, but does feature the phrase “you need elephant balls,” which I’m kind of amazed he worked into a song with a straight face.

Overall, my estimation of Echo is a bit higher than it was when it came out 17 years ago.  Petty’s songwriting is as strong as ever, the band feel expressive and lively, and everyone sounds like they’re having a blast playing these tunes.  All pretty strange, considering it’s a post-divorce album (those’re typically dour affairs, even as they generate plenty of fodder for the songwriter’s muse).  Petty seemed to make some pretty damn good lemonade out of those lemons, if you ask me.

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