On Tom Petty, Dave Grohl, And The Burden Of Consistent Greatness

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers Perform At The Viejas Arena
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You’d be hard-pressed to find a musician more reliable or consistent than Tom Petty. Since his 1976 debut with The Heartbreakers, he’s been giving us his trademark heartland rock with little to no dropoff in quality over the years. Sure, he’s mixed up the formula from time to time; things got a little folkier with Full Moon Fever, and there was the surprisingly rewarding blues/jam experiment of 2010’s Mojo, but in general, Tom Petty is the type of performer from whom we know exactly what we’re getting from.

It would be fair to say that throughout his 40-year career, Tom Petty has never recorded a truly bad album. Oh sure, there have been minor missteps; the anti-industry screed of The Last DJ can sound a bit bitter and cranky at times, but that album also gives us the gorgeous ballad “Dreamville,” an idyllic look back at Tom’s childhood, along with the wistful “Blue Sunday,” in which he peacefully lets a struggling relationship deteriorate. Likewise, 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) — one of his most overlooked efforts — has the single “Jammin’ Me,” which sounds a bit awkward in 2015, with its seemingly random critiques of Eddie Murphy and Vanessa Redgrave (worth noting, Bob Dylan actually wrote those lyrics), but there’s also “It’ll All Work Out,” which stands as one of the best ballads Petty has ever written. Petty’s albums tend to contain the occasional bit of filler, but the good pretty much always outweighs the bad.

By any measure, Petty’s reliability would seem like a major positive, but one must ask, has it made him underappreciated? Think about it; without any bad Petty albums, perhaps it becomes harder to notice how good his work is. You might not look at any Petty album, even his most beloved works like Damn the Torpedoes or Wildflowers, as a true masterpiece because that’s just what Tom Petty does. To put it from the opposite perspective, Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed is an undeniable classic, but it might seem even better when you’ve just listened to, say, Dirty Work. Tom Petty is a remarkably consistent songwriter, and while that’s won him plenty of fans, it’s also led to him being taken somewhat for granted.

Petty might not be the only artist affected by this phenomenon. We could likely say the same thing about Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters. Grohl has often been compared to Petty, perhaps even acting as his generation’s equivalent of him. Some of that is likely because they both embody the “everyman” vibe; rock stars who have no interest in being Rock Stars, and just happen to enjoy making music for the public to enjoy. But it goes beyond that. Much like Petty, Grohl makes good album after good album so consistently that you might not even notice anymore. One might argue that Grohl — and Petty, for that matter — has never made a Great Album, but the other side of the coin is that he’s made several, and he just does it so often that it seems ordinary. In general, consistency can work against performers because it can make their truly brilliant work seem merely pedestrian.

How great Tom Petty is, and how much mileage one gets out of his music, is obviously in the eye of the beholder, but it’s hard to deny that he’s had one of the sturdiest careers in rock history. If you like one Tom Petty album, chances are you’ll find something to like about all of them. Likewise, if a given Petty record does nothing for you, it’s unlikely that you’ll find much to like in the rest of his discography. Petty is incredibly reliable, and sometimes reliability can feel like predictability. That said, when we consider Tom Petty’s entire body of work, the totality of it is pretty stunning. In four decades, he has yet to have a serious misstep. Predictable or not, Tom Petty is on rock ‘n’ roll’s longest winning streak. For that, he deserves our utmost respect.