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Although he claims it has nothing to do with his bitter divorce a few years back, Tom Petty's Echo is the rock veteran's masterful chronicle of the hurt, betrayal, and confusion that inevitably follow a nasty split. Battle-scarred and weary, this is a different Petty from the guy who smirked his way through a string of tongue-in-cheek videos in the Eighties, goofed around with the star-studded Traveling Wilburys, and gleefully bashed out mainstream rock and roll gems with his sturdy, reliable Heartbreakers. The existential escapism of "Running Down a Dream" and "Kings Highway," and the emotional distance of "Breakdown" and "Free Fallin'," have been replaced with an insistence on surveying the rubble around him, digging through the wreckage in search of solace, and discovering a glimmer of light in the darkness of love's shattered aftermath.
In Echo's smoldering opening cut, "Room at the Top," he sounds as though he's found it: a place "where everyone can have a dream and forget those things that went wrong." It's a lie, though, and before the song is over, he's trapped in that room, not living in it -- on his knees, a fragile shell, pleading for understanding and consolation. It's a recurring theme throughout Echo, from the aching "One More Day, One More Night" and "Lonesome Sundown" to the title track, a scathing look back at a dissolved relationship that's about as venomous as Bob Dylan's "Idiot Wind."
During his remarkably consistent 23-year career, Petty has certainly built some fine songs from the remnants of heartbreak: "Love Is a Long Road," "Louisiana Rain," "Don't Come Around Here No More," "She's a Woman in Love," and, from the overlooked 1996 soundtrack to She's the One, "Supernatural Radio." Yet the bulk of his work has focused on the resilience of a man who can either take love when it's there or leave when the shit starts hitting the fan (e.g., "You Got Lucky," "I Won't Back Down," "Change the Locks"), as well as sympathetic character studies à la "Refugee," "Listen to Her Heart," "American Girl," and "Rebels." There's also his penchant for lighthearted silliness, not just the Wilburys collaborations, but "Yer So Bad," "The Apartment Song," and the often-hilarious B-side throwaways collected on the 1995 box set, Playback.
On Echo Petty stares squarely into the eye of his own disillusionment and fear, grappling with romantic paranoia in "Counting on You," making a futile attempt at reconciliation in "Lonesome Sundown," and discovering that you need "Rhino Skin" to deal with heartache and loss. In the beautiful ballad "No More," Petty resolves to do "nothing if it's not real," though the hushed vocal suggests he's not that strong. Even the buoyant, Byrds-ian "Accused of Love" and "This One's for Me" are tainted with remorse and the cold, hard slap of betrayal and loss.
Yet this is by no means Petty's version of Dylan's despondent 1997 masterpiece Time Out of Mind, neither musically nor thematically. Dark as the album is, Echo's best songs (the gut-wrenching title track notwithstanding) are defiant refusals to succumb to cynicism, self-pity, or self-loathing. On "Billy the Kid," "Won't Last Long," and the wickedly funny "About to Give Out," Petty catalogues the turmoil in his life (the hardships, the disintegration of trust, the disappointment) yet never drowns in melancholia. Rather he emerges from the mire with determination, his faith shaken but still intact. Even better is "Free Girl Now," a jubilant shout of encouragement to a woman who has suffered the indignity of sexual harassment.
There's an indomitable spirit, an ambiance of catharsis, in nearly every song here that is underpinned and bolstered by the Heartbreakers' best work to date. On the framework of Petty's traditional three-chord structures, the group adds embellishments that turn predictable breaks and bar-band moves into something startlingly original and overwhelmingly powerful. Guitarist Mike Campbell shines throughout the set, whether laying down gentle acoustic slide, firing off a flurry of electric notes, or paying homage to Keith Richards and Johnny Thunders on the roaring "I Don't Wanna Fight" (which, by the way, features his debut as lead vocalist). Keyboardist Benmont Tench has absorbed the influences of Garth Hudson and Al Kooper into a style entirely his own, from the soaring orchestral flourishes of "About to Give Out" to the teasing organ riff on "Accused of Love." And the entire band pounds relentlessly at "Free Girl Now" like garage-rock kids, lost in the raucous, joyful, liberating noise.
And that, ultimately, is what Echo is about: liberation and survival, finding ways to live through the chaos and get beyond it, or to give up only after putting up a hell of a fight. Which makes "Swingin'" the centerpiece of the album and a majestic anthem of strength in the face of real-life hardship. It's also about failure, not the kind you wallow in, but the kind you face with tight fists and flying arms. After all, it's the only way to go.