It’s time to shine the Vinyl Spotlight! Every now and then on Paloozapalooza, I like to focus on a specific LP from my collection. This week, we have:
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Echo (1999)
Every since the news hit that Tom Petty had died, I’ve been a bit of a mess. It hit me harder than when any other public figure has ever passed away. Right in the gut. Like a ton of bricks. To help me channel some of the emotions I’ve been experiencing, I thought I’d write a bit about the Petty album I cherish the most: 1999’s Echo.
Petty, along with his trusty Heartbreakers, released Echo in 1999, when he was just a few months shy of his 49th birthday. He was going through a rough divorce as he wrote these songs and you could tell right away. On the band’s last record, the underrated She’s the One soundtrack, Petty and the rest of the band had sounded relaxed and carefree, even when the songs themselves were expressing heartache or anger. Echo, though, sounds serious from the very beginning. Even the artwork—black and white shots of the band standing behind a small tree—suggests something more somber than usual. This seriousness resulted in one of my absolute favorite Petty albums, right up there with Damn the Torpedoes, Southern Accents, Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers. Even at 15 songs, the material is consistently strong from start to finish.
I would argue that Echo‘s opening track, “Room at the Top,” is one of the 4 or 5 greatest achievements of Petty’s entire discography. It’s his “Blind Willie McTell,” if you will—the late-career masterstroke that can stand alongside the biggest hits from his prime. “Room at the Top” opens with a hint of Benmont Tench’s keys, a casual guitar part and a terrific performance from Petty. I got a room at the top of the world tonight, he sings. I can see everything tonight/ I got a room where everyone/ Can have a drink and forget those things/ That went wrong in their life. It’s a song of reflection. Of perspective. Look deep in the eyes of love, he sings later. And find out what you were looking for. “Room at the Top” gradually builds in its opening minutes, finally letting loose just before the three-minute mark. It’s a cathartic moment, when the tension that had been slowly building up finally explodes in a fury of intensity.
The first several songs on Echo are just as strong—it’s remarkable, really, how damn strong this thing is. “Counting on You” has a great groove and a truckload of attitude. “Free Girl Now” has a hell of a hook and a bridge that takes things to a whole other level. And “Lonesome Sundown” is one of the album’s greatest moments, a song so sad and beautiful that I can barely listen to it now without tearing up. Redemption comes, Petty sings. To those who wait/ Forgiveness is the key/ And I wish you love/ And I wish you hope/ Please believe in me. Another thing that stands out about “Lonesome Sundown,” at least to me, is that this is when I think Petty started to actually sound his age. Even on She’s the One, he never necessarily sounded like a man approaching 50. On “Lonesome Sundown,” though, you can hear his years of life experience in every word.
Two other songs from the record’s first half deserve special recognition: “Swingin’,” yet another example of Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell John Prine-like ability to get something completely fresh out of the simplest of chord progressions, and “Echo,” the six-and-a-half minute ballad that has haunted me since I first heard it back in 1999. I promise you this winter, Petty sings on “Echo.” I will worship you like gold/ And ride your train forever/ Electric fortunes to be told. “Room at the Top” might be my favorite song on this record, but “Echo” is a very close No. 2. Heck, maybe it’s a tie. My brain can’t make such decisions right now … not so soon after we lost him.
The second half of Echo is almost as strong as its top half, providing a bit more variety along the way. “Billy the Kid,” “This One’s For Me,” “No More” and “Rhino Skin” are all highlights, songs that instantly get stuck in my head the moment I even think about this album. “I Don’t Wanna Fight” is fun as well, with Campbell taking over lead vocal duties and reminding us all that, yes, he actually sounds a whole lot like Petty.
These guys always knew how to end an album, and Echo is no exception. “One More Day, One More Night” is one heck of a closer, with the emotion swelling in that final minute as the guitars take over one last time. And once you reach this point, you’re ready for the album to end. To think it over. To reflect
And if you want more? You get to just start all over again with “Room at the Top.” Which is what I think I’ll do right now …