It's probably a good thing the record industry doesn't treat its male moneymakers with the kind of pinp philosphy accorded females. Otherwise, we could expect to see Tom Petty on every dorm wall in the country -- learning suggestively over a beach ball, winking coyly from behind a wisp of blond hair, or perhaps sprawled languorously across his bed on the pages of Rolling Stone, a pair of Travolta - type briefs hugging his glorious gluteus.
Certainly, Petty has the record company capable of such a campaign, and enough swooning fanlets to make it profitable. But base exploitation of his, um, charms would probably devalue his considerable contributions to strong, straightforward rock and roll. Probably.
So let's put lust aside and get on with a serious discussion of Petty's latest album, "Hard Promises." The title is not just another petty phrase: After bankruptcy, followed by 1979's acclaimed "Damn the Torpedoes," followed by a tonsillectony, followed by an album-pricing fight with MCA, it's just short of miraculous that Petty has been able to live up to the expectations of a long-waiting rock audience.
Petty's voice has always possessed the best qualities of the pre-reborn Bob Dylan, and his charts have captured the jubilant spirit of the Byrds without being either shameless larceny or apologetic ancestor-worship. From the opening chords of "The Waiting," which begins the LP, this delicate musical balance appears threatened, but just when you're poised to sing "All I really wanna doooo," Petty leaps in to repossess the tune, summing up the mood at the same time: "Oh baby don't it feel like heaven right now/Don't it feel like something from a dream." Absolutely.
Several of the songs, in fact, have a dream-like air about them, a lyrical abstractionism that Petty only hinted at on earlier albums. "Something Big" eschews wide-open major chording for a darker tone to go with its enigmatic storyline. And "King's Road," "A Thing About You" and "Nightwatchman" are draped in a gossamer fabric of dreams, alienation and fear that Petty has heretofore shunned for the denim-and-flannelisms of heartbreak and desire.
"How safe do you wanna be?" asks the dangerous-sounding protagonist of "Nightwatchman." Not too, as most of us would admit, and this new lyrical daredeviltry is what shapes the album.
Even when dealing with standard rock themes, Petty throws in an occasional eyeopener. The album's least-inspired, most musically arid track offers its own lush, albeit ungrammatical, oasis: "There's no one as honest as those in pain."
Still, Petty's ability to interpret words has always been stronger than his talent for writing them, and the best cuts on "Hard Promises" are those that enable him to lose self-consciousness.
In this regard, "A Woman in Love (It's Not Me)" is the album's finest track. Keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair, guitarists Petty and Mike Campbell have never been so fully in control of their own dynamics as they are here. And when Petty shrieks "I don't understand the world today," it comes roaring out of the gut, the soul and the diaphragm all at the same time. This rock and roll heartbreak, the way it's supposed to be.
Not all is so perfect with "Hard Promises." On "A Woman in Love" (and particularly on "Something Big"), Petty's voice degenerates now and then into a strained, near-unintelligible mumble that sounds like Dylan after a night swilling Kaopectate.
Furthermore, "Insider," Petty's gorgeous duet with Stevie Nicks, runs on a bit too long, or perhaps repeats the chorus once too often.
But for a fellow who once described his own music as "disposable garbage," Petty seems even more impervious than ever to any temptation to treat it that way, or to succumb to Jaggeresque, fenzine-mentality posturing.
Art director Tommy Steel (Art Hotel) has decorated the album with lots more pictures than appeared on previous ones -- a concession, no doubt, to his bankability as pure popicon.
That's okay. It's the music of "Hard Promises" that reaffirms Petty's ranking as a first-rate American rocker. Based on the evidence here, he's quite capable of living with his popular image without either exploiting it for trying to refute it.
The Album -- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "Hard Promises." Backstreet BSR -- 5160