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Father to dozens of car-radio classics, Tom Petty in his later years has sidestepped his sing-along wizardry for a more somber, introspective feel. As if equating maturity with acoustic guitars and whispered vocals, Petty captured a dynamic, autumnal grace with 1994's Wallflowers but has since traversed shaky terrain. He can't fully give up his reckless, charming youthfulness, but he's not deep enough for meaningful artistic statements. In the process, he's become just one more slightly boring middle-aged rocker. His uptempo stompers now have stretch marks, while he pours orchestra upon orchestra into his tender ballads, which classic-rock stations aren't gonna play anyway.
That over-the-hill stench gets a little more pungent with The Last DJ, Petty's kinda/sorta concept album about the evils of the music industry. Still, when he's not trying to satirize the biz -- where his targets are obvious and caricaturish -- he falls back on his considerable songwriting strengths. It should be no surprise that the old dog defeats the new tricks by a wide margin.
To be fair, it's not Petty's fault that his rueful commentaries mostly fall flat. Like movies about making movies, songs chastising record companies always feel terribly off-putting. Look, the average music fan wants songs that rebel against his parents, his lover, his lot in life; if he really wanted to stick it to Warner Bros., he'd just download The Last DJ rather than pay for it. That being said, Petty can put his point across when he frames his displeasure within the same sort of pretty lost-love songs he's concocted for years.
The best example of this is "Dreamville," a subversively insidious indictment of rock music's faded promise. Employing piano and nostalgic strings, Petty recounts the memories of a wonderful childhood: clean air, a loving mother, lazy summers, and, most significantly, "rock 'n' roll across the dial." Rather than sounding like the cranky 50-something who throws hissy fits on much of The Last DJ, Petty caresses a fundamental truth -- for music fanatics, songs form the emotional landscape of our lives, allowing a brief reprieve from the real world.
But Petty needn't worry about rock's resiliency. Even if America has become a collection of greedy, all-powerful companies, individual artists still write memorable tunes that inspire and move us. When Petty gets off his high horse, he still writes a few himself occasionally.