The Last DJ

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Warner Brothers, 2002

http://www.tompetty.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/30/2017

The thing about Tom Petty is, even when he was bad, he was still pretty good.

Others have called The Last DJ the weakest link in Petty’s substantial catalogue, and to be sure, this 2002 release contains both some filler and one or two outright clunkers, an album of struggle that came into being at a critical crossroads for the band, as longtime Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein was in the midst of his final, fatal dance with addiction.

But let’s begin by dispelling the number one misconception about The Last DJ: it’s not an album-long diatribe against the corruption of the music industry by corporate interests. It’s a four-song-long diatribe against the corruption of the music industry by corporate interests (the title track, “Money Becomes King,” “Joe,” and “Can’t Stop The Sun”), with eight other tunes of varying subject matter and quality set inside that thin frame. Granted, the aforesaid four songs wear out their welcome quickly with their bile-driven, sledgehammer approach to the subject matter, but Petty wasn’t wrong; corporate interests did take over, driving free-form radio off the public dial.

Inevitably, though, The Last DJ’s dominant tone has a certain cranky-neighbor “get off my lawn” vibe, railing at changes that had been developing for decades, at least as long as Petty had been active, and that by 2002 felt uncontestable; Petty might as well have stood at the ocean’s edge railing at the tide. However regrettable the changes in the industry, it wasn’t about to go back to what it was; it was already evolving into something new and different, as Petty himself subsequently demonstrated with the 2015 debut of Tom Petty Radio on Sirius, where he spun age-old blues and early rock nuggets that rarely if ever made it onto the airwaves in his own ’70s heyday.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The other factor here is the hardly shocking news that this album received little promotional support from the industry it mercilessly savaged, becoming the first Petty album that failed to go gold. Was TP’s primal howl of protest worth it? Well.

The four thematic tracks vary wildly in quality. “The Last DJ” is classic Petty in construction, hooky and melodic even if the lyric does get rather pedantic. “Money Becomes King” and the distinctly Beatlesque “Can’t Stop The Sun” aim for a similar vibe but collapse under their own weight; they just feel obvious, a status that Petty has always striven to rise above as a songwriter. And “Joe”—well, Stephen Thomas Erlewine called “Joe” the worst song TP ever wrote, and it’s definitely embarrassing, a ham-fisted attempt to make fun of the rapacious CEOs ruining the music industry, a song whose cringe-worthy spoke-sung vocal makes more than one listen thoroughly unnecessary.

The Last DJ includes several songs that also fail to rise to the top echelon of Petty’s vast catalogue. “When A Kid Turns Bad” feels tossed-off, with a lyric that needed a few more passes to rise above cliché, and “The Man Who Loves Women” is a trifle as well. Things improve when Petty indulges his Beatles fetish again on stately piano ballad “Like A Diamond,” featuring a raw, bluesy solo from guitarist Mike Campbell, and “Lost Children” is similarly elevated by Campbell’s sharp guitar work.

Scattered through the tracklist are a trio of songs where this album finds its feet, however momentarily. “Dreamville” is pure nostalgia, but lovely at that, full of warm piano, thrumming acoustic guitar and dynamic orchestral elements (that Beatles thing again). “Blue Sunday” is a lyrical story-song with a folk-rock feel; there’s nothing remarkable about it, it’s just very well constructed, with sharply drawn, novelistic verses and a sweet, vibey chorus. And “Have Love Will Travel” is a pure stunner, a Dylanesque mid-tempo anthem of romantic devotion; “And may my love travel / With you everywhere / Yeah may my love travel / With you always,” sings Petty in a chorus that now feels like an epitaph.

The thing is, even a choppy, mediocre Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album still rises above much of what surrounded it, then and now. Throughout his 40-plus year run, the basics never changed: the man was a genius songwriter and charismatic singer fronting a phenomenally talented band. Like each of the albums that don’t make the top ranks of Petty’s catalogue, The Last DJ still has its moments, flashes of brilliance glimmering out from among the ample folds of his massive songbook.

Rating: C

User Rating: C


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