When it comes to making a follow-up for a career-defining release, the catch is that whatever comes can often feel like a diminished return no matter how good it might be – because the new music simply does not have the same spark which ignited the breakthrough of the previous album. It’s kind of heartbreaking to concede that possibility, but such turned out to be precisely the fault with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers‘ fourth album, Hard Promises.
While the album does feature a great single in the form of “The Waiting,” the balance of the tracks on the album simply do not compare to the material which appeared on Damn The Torpedoes. Simply said, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ third album was an incomparable juggernaut, and it shows as one listens to Hard Promises – whether they want to admit it or not, listeners will be left wanting by this album.
But what if we forget the breakthrough represented by Damn The Torpedoes? What if we ignore the success of the band’s third album and just judge Hard Promises all on its own? It would be no easy feat because “The Waiting” is the song which opens the album’s A-side and feels like a self-reflexive response to the popular success that The Heartbreakers enjoyed thanks to Damn The Torpedoes and imagines fans waiting in droves for a follow-up album, but it can’t be impossible to try. It’s for that reason the idea gets more and more attractive.
So let’s take the chance, shall we reader? This shall be the review of Hard Promises which pretends Damn The Torpedoes never happened.
On its own terms
“It may sound a little trite to contend it, but as soon as “The Waiting” opens Hard Promises, it’s perfectly self-evident that Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers have come into their own as a band – they simply ooze equal amounts of passion and charisma from note one.
That’s undeniable and undeniably attractive but, in this case, the hook is in the act; here, after Petty wins hearts with some choice vintage Rickenbacher tones, the singer makes those same hearts ache and wait while he stretches some of his vowels through the lines, “The waiting is the hardest part/ Every day you see just one more card/ You take it on fath, you take it to the heart/ The waiting is the hardest part” and makes everyone who has had to wait for anything ever weak in the knees as a lump wells up in their collective throat.
After “The Waiting” loosens listeners’ hearts, the Heartbreakers go out of their way to slide slyly in and make listeners really feel the emotional design of each successive song as the A-side of Hard Promises progresses. Among the prime examples is the super-swingin’ and sexy swing of “Nightwatchman” which lifts part of the descending guitar motif from The Doors’ “L.A. Woman”and both re-contextualizes and reconstitutes it as a come-on instead of a celebration.
Here, Petty really measures his delivery to make listeners lilt over in hopes of trying to stay with him (check out the way the lines “I’m the nightwatchman, I make the rounds/ I gotta keep my nose to the ground/ I’m the nightwatchman – security/I’m the nightwatchman…”) and then titillates them by threatening but not delivering a guitar solo.
That sort of tease continues through the “dog days of summer” simmer-fest “Something Big” which hints at innumerable big ideas but never delivers anything above a simmering keyboard part.
Finally, at the close of the side, Petty gives listeners a readymade, chicken-fried anthem as best he makes them (“Kings Road”) and it feels awesome to finally get that give – even if it might not be anywhere near the singer’s best work. That’s the turn which will have listeners ready to flip Hard Promises over to hear what the B-side has in store for them.
Again, as stated, it’s not Petty’s best work but it has just enough of the right spark to have listeners tackling it in earnest.