Throughout his career, Tom Petty has fought to keep his music out of the hands of “the boys upstairs.” Now, Petty openly confronts his corporate adversaries on his new CD, “The Last DJ.”
On “The Last DJ,” Petty takes on an American music industry he describes as motivated strictly by profit and image. The album, Petty’s 13th studio recording, strongly contrasts his previous release, 2000’s stripped-down “Echo,” in its use of musical textures and intertwined lyrical concepts.
Petty is joined on “The Last DJ” by his backing band the Heartbreakers, which includes such longtime collaborators as guitarist and co-producer Mike Campbell and pianist Benmont Tench. The album also marks the return of original Heartbreakers bassist Ron Blair, who left the band in 1982. Blair plays on two of the album’s tracks and is currently touring with Petty and the Heartbreakers.
The album’s 12 songs establish a thematic cycle dealing with today’s recording industry and Petty’s love of music as a means of expression and introspection. The normally cryptic songwriter repeatedly voices his dissatisfaction with the music business throughout “The Last DJ,” making this perhaps the most lyrically outspoken recording of his 26-year career. But in achieving unequivocal lyrical clarity, Petty has also produced some deeply embittered songs that may seem self-indulgent to some listeners.
Throughout the album, Petty presents this dissatisfaction through the use of characters and thematically connected lyrics. “Money Becomes King” portrays a rock star whose passion for music has been consumed by the industry’s demands. Petty also satirizes an industry CEO in the uneven but clever “Joe.” And on the album’s title track, Petty mourns the end of a freer, more expressive era in radio with the symbolic departure of the last DJ. Again, he directs the blame towards industry executives in such lines as, “As we celebrate mediocrity/ all the boys upstairs want to see/ how much you’ll pay for what you used to get for free.”
While he concentrates on the music business, Petty does explore other musical themes and stylistic avenues on the album. “The Last DJ” demonstrates a sharper focus in Petty’s songwriting, and the result is a strong collection of elaborately arranged and orchestrated songs. Petty manages to explore a wide variety of musical styles while maintaining the trademark folk-rock sound that has become instantly recognizable to listeners worldwide. Petty and the Heartbreakers dabble into a funky psychedelic jam on “Lost Children” with the help of Campbell’s wah-wah pedals and Tench’s melodic keyboard passages. The band uses lush orchestral arrangements to drive the reflective piano-based ballads “Dreamland” and “Like a Diamond.” Petty’s voice is also in fine form; his nasal delivery provides both emphasis and delicate harmony throughout “The Last DJ.”
But the album’s shining moment is the jangly, classic-rock opus “Have Love Will Travel.” The song, which reintroduces many of the characters from earlier in the album, contrasts soaring electric guitar passages and emotive vocal harmonies with the lighter refrain of “may my love travel with you everywhere/may my love travel with you always.” The song’s superior arrangement and lyricism rank it among Petty’s finest achievements.
The album then closes with “Can’t Stop the Sun,” which brings earlier themes full circle and allows optimism to have the last word: “You may take my money/ you may turn off my microphone — but there’ll be more just like me/ who won’t give in/ who’ll rise again.”
Despite its strong points, “The Last DJ” is not able to sustain these strengths entirely, as demonstrated by the cliched lyrics of “When a Kid Goes Bad” or the uninspired “You and Me.” But Petty manages to create a coherent song cycle on “The Last DJ” that will give listeners something new to think about. While some may be slow to embrace Petty’s often-cynical commentary, his songs still possess the catchy rock and roll hooks and contemplative lyrical style that have made him an enduring force in American music.