So what am I supposed to tell you about Tom Petty that you’re not already aware of? And what is the point of this compilation to an Americana music fan who already has all the albums? It’s not going to be enough, I’m sure, to mention that’s it a sumptuous 4CD set, presented as a hardback book format, with a solid introductory essay and lots of great pictures. Each song has some notes on it mostly written by Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, who made the selections along with Petty’s longtime engineer/archivist Ryan Ulyate.
It’s a beautiful looking item, and the 60 tracks included are a fittingly solid tribute to a musician who’s untimely death was in 2017 at the age of only 66. And the thing is that this is not just a beefed up Greatest Hits package – you won’t find ‘American Girl‘ here, or ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance‘ – it’s not even a sampling from every album. There are alternate versions of familiar favourites, some quite radically different from the songs we know. There are live cuts as well. And there are songs that never made it onto albums. A lot of previously unreleased material, and that’s the reason why someone who has appreciated the music of Tom Petty over the years – from the kick-ass rocker with a flying-V guitar to the man who was taking on the mantle of still relevant elder statesman of rock with an acoustic – will want to listen to this.
The four CDs are broken down by decade – 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the long 2000’s right up to Tom Petty’s last release with his first band, Mudcrutch. It’s a sensible approach, keeping the sounds from song to song well balanced, showing how Tom Petty changed over the years, how he moved into solo albums, how he matured from the persona of a brash kid to the thoughtful observer of life, love and the American way. Not always with pleasure on that last – ‘Money Becomes King‘ doesn’t just recall a simpler, happier, time – it also calls out those who’ve conspired to tie down and commoditise a musical form that once knew no barriers. More than just a pose from Petty – everyone knows how ‘Hard Promises‘ came close to being called ‘$8.98‘ as a protest about the proposal to hike his album price up to $9.98. And this is the man who wrote “How about a cheer for all those bad girls / and all the boys that play that rock and roll / they love it like you love Jesus / it does the same thing to their souls” and meant it.
The unreleased tracks include ‘Keeping me alive‘, which Petty had wanted on ‘Long after Dark‘ and ‘Don’t treat me like a stranger‘ which previously had only been available as the UK B-Side to ‘Won’t back down‘ and features that ‘Full Moon Fever‘ Jeff Lynne sound. There’s a simply gorgeous rehearsal version of ‘You and Me‘ – just strummed guitar and the keyboards a little bright, but it sounds wonderful. There’s a story about the recording from Petty’s wife Dana which if read alongside the music is likely to bring a tear to the eye, and Petty’s final spoken words on the recording “that’s real nice” sums up the whole set.
Is this essential? Yes.