A year shy of fifty, Tom Petty
has reached the position also held by old tourmate Bob Dylan: No longer dependent on a current release to draw audiences, Petty and his Heartbreakers are a destination unto themselves, a quiet institution. Petty's sound is so consistent that having a favorite Petty album is almost redundant. When someone asks whom you listen to and you answer with Petty's name, no further explanation is required. But the trick for Petty has been keeping that consistency from becoming merely predictable, and in recent years, the effort hasn't always paid off. The massive success of his debut for Warner Bros., 1994's Wildflowers
, was severely undercut by his participation in Edward Burns' insipid movie She's the One
; 1999's Echo
turned out to be aptly titled, less a return to form than a longer-than-usual rehash of Petty's sentimental side. Former label MCA has had the last laugh, recently doubling the length of its 1993 Petty hits disc and scoring a hit with a career overview more vital than Petty's most recent discs. After two decades of classic rock radio's making Petty's limited but heartfelt songwriting second nature to Americans -- indeed, synonymous with classic rock -- it might be time for Petty to do what John Mellencamp did a couple of years ago: rearrange his songs in concert to give audiences something that can't be heard on hits packages.
Only three years older than Petty, Jackson Browne was a staple of early FM radio long before Petty achieved household-name status. No longer comfortable as a figment of So-Cal's laid-back country rock past (though he outgrew his Eagles hit "Take It Easy" early on) or as a reminder of how little rock's most liberal spokespeople have been able to accomplish, Browne has retreated the past decade to the most spare songwriting of his career. Five years after his most recent album, Looking East, Browne lacks the cachet enjoyed by Petty -- his singles were rarely his best songs, and only a handful of them get the play Petty's songs enjoy. Ironically, now would be an ideal time for Browne to reignite his leftist spark in song -- he'd have a lot to talk about, and he might even have matured enough to make the songs more than complaints.