Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had a pretty good decade in the 1990s. In 1991, the group released "Into the Great Wide Open." If you've never heard the album, it's like "Full Moon Fever, Vol. 2." Just about every song on the album sounds like it could have / should have been a radio hit (and a couple of them surely were).
Then you had the first "Greatest Hits," which featured "Mary Jane's Last Dance." Anyone who was conscious in the mid 1990s knows this song (and probably loves it). And for the Kim Basinger haters, well, the video featured her as a corpse. Win-win, right?
Then came Tom Petty's second "solo" album "Wildflowers" (the first being "Full Moon Fever," and the "solo" distinction reflecting that ... one again ... many of the Heartbreakers were actually involved). "Wildflowers" is my favorite of all the Petty-related albums released through 2011, so I don't need to speak further on my opinions of its qualities.
And THEN you have the great soundtrack to the movie "She's the One." I'm not a big fan of the film itself, but the album is an enormous success. Everything about the variety of the music screams to the immense strengths of the band. And it had one of their last great frilly psychedelic hits: "Walls (Circus)."
And finally ... you hit "Echo." Released in 1999, it's something of a curiosity.
If you've ever seen the video biographical film "Running Down a Dream," you'll note that Tom Petty and the band don't have much to say that's positive about "Echo."
In fact, in a line one of my friends likes to quote, the general impression given is: "'Echo' is ..."
The band really doesn't relate to it.
Here's the deal.
Tom Petty was going through a pretty harsh divorce. This inspired in him feelings that were, to put it mildly, unpleasant. It's not like Petty and the band hadn't gone through tumult and legal battles before (as anyone aware of their history can readily testify). But nothing had hit Petty this personally, this privately.
Petty could have recorded his anger, his spite, his frustration ... He could have put details into the songs, he could have really vented and made a powerful "divorce" album. But he didn't (well, a couple of the songs definitely have connotations about them, but nothing TOO potent). As the "Running Down a Dream" video puts it (and I paraphrase here): Petty could have released an album that attacked things head on, and it probably would have been a better album ... but he would have been a worse human being for doing it.
Petty's divorce wasn't the only problem the band was confronting. Bass player and vocalist Howie Epstein (who had provided so many of the clear, beautiful high parts and harmonies) was struggling with heroin addiction ... and losing. His problems with drugs was impeding his health, his physical strength and his ability to meet obligations. He's not featured on the "Echo" album cover, even, as he missed the photo shoot because of either being sick from heroin withdrawal OR from oversleeping because of heroin use (I've heard it both ways).
In any event, "Echo" would be the last album to feature Epstein. He died from a heroin overdose in 2003. Truly sad.
As you can see, "Echo" had a lot of issues cluttering its making. It wasn't a pleasant time for anyone in the band, and I'm sure that contributes to their personal lack of appreciation for the effort.
Their issues and lack of appreciation had, and continue to have, little effect on me.
When the album was released in 1999, I was in my final months (weeks?) of high school. A lot of Tom Petty music was pretty vital to my appreciation of modern (that is to say, not Sixties) rock in general. His stuff from the Seventies and Eighties was definitely great, but I'd respected how vital and popular he remained in the Nineties. It takes real talent, real attitude, real determination to span decades and remain so damn cool.
I bought two copies of the album the week it came out. One was for one of my best friends, the other was for me. I'm not sure if my friend still has the CD, if he ever listened to it much, etc. But for me, it was part of my soundtrack to the Summer of 1999. And it still sounds good to me today.
The album has anger, but it also has humor and drive. "Swingin'" has as much perseverance as the people named in roll call fashion throughout the song. "Free Girl Now" could just as easily be a Joe Walsh song. "Billy the Kid" recalls the "ready to fight" Petty of the early Eighties. And Mike Campbell even gets a lead vocal (on "I Don't Wanna Fight")! When all is said and done, the album has a bit of something for everyone. It's an album that deserves more than a brief note and dismissal from its creator(s).
I am going to "live blog" this album tonight. I haven't sat down to really listen to this album, track by track, in a couple of years. I'll be curious to see if my positive feelings are still as strong, and if I have any new impressions on the material.
If you've heard the album before, or if you get the urge to buy it or listen to it after exposure from this blog, I'd love to get your input!