During hard times, people tend to put aside their loftier idealism and toughen up for the battle for survival. Far more quickly than most art forms, popular music reflects these changes in attitudes. Two of the most consistent talents in mainstream rock 'n' roll -- Tom Petty and Steve Van Zandt -- have responded to today's hard times with albums flawed but nonetheless tough and true.
In the past, Petty had played both ringing, 12-string folk-rock guitar -- with its idealistic echoes of the Byrds -- and chunky, six-string rhythm & blues guitar -- with its streetwise echoes of the Rolling Stones. On his fifth album, "Long After Dark" (Backstreet, BSR-5360), Petty tilts toward tough R&B. Similarly, Van Zandt has played folk-rock guitar as part of Bruce Stringsteen & The E Street Band and chunkier R&B guitar as part of Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes. On his first solo album, Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul's "Men Without Women" (EMI, ST-17086), Van Zandt, too, goes for a hard-edged survival sound.
Petty's new album is something of a letdown after the soaring melodies and inspiring idealism on the 1979 "Damn the Torpedos" and the 1981 "Hard Promises." Yet in a year of lowered expectations, Petty's pretty guitar work and stubborn singing are welcome signs of resistance. If the pop melodies are less hummable, the guitar figures are sturdier than ever. "Deliver Me" begins with an instantly memorable one-bar guitar phrase in the best spirit of Keith Richards. The phrase implies a hard-nosed combativeness that makes the shouted title lines seem possible. "A One Story Town" bursts from the gate with a busting-loose guitar figure that sets up the lyrics about leaving a stifling hometown for better opportunity.
The album is marred by some weak filler material, especially the formulaic hard rock of "You Got Lucky" and "Between Two Worlds." The best song, though, transforms monologues addressed to girlfriends into implicit evocations of the current national crisis. What lines could better capture the current social mood than "There's something wrong; I can't get my finger on it . . . But I'm finding out, I'm finding out." "Finding Out" closes the album's first side with a stirring build of guitars that mirrors the singer's growing awareness and anger. The slower, moodier "A Wasted Life" closes side two with the singer's angry fear that his aging friends will never get a chance to realize their dreams. Benmont Tench's synthesizer and Mike Campbell's guitar bell-tones create an intimate stillness for Petty's heartfelt vocals that make the song a plea: "You gotta stand and fight . . . Don't have a wasted life."
Though Petty is a far better singer and a better composer in his best moments, Van Zandt's album is the better of the two new releases. Van Zandt attacks key issues more directly and diligently. He sets the stakes high on the opening song as he describes our current crisis as "Lyin' in a Bed Fire." Pushed by blaring horns and stinging guitars, Van Zandt cries out in anger against an era of rollbacks and cutbacks: "Whatever happened to everybody I heard talkin' so loud? All the changes that never came to be? I still got the same old bad taste in my mouth. Somebody took something that once belonged to me." On the album's best song, "Inside of Me," he maintains a stubborn faith in the face of this repression: "Don't tell me everything we believed in has been washed away . . . It's still alive inside of me." The horn section and piano punch out a contagious, swaying melody that just begs the listener to join in.
Van Zandt's first solo album is credited to Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul, a band name that could have come from a '50s rock 'n' roll show; the album's title is taken from a collection of Hemingway short stories. The songs try to combine "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" with "For Whom the Bell Tolls." The long cast of players on the album includes five-sixths of the E Street Band, five alumni of the Asbury Jukes, half of the Young Rascals, one of the Plasmatics, plus Gary "U.S." Bonds. There are bits of all these influences in the music. But E Streeters supply the familiar surging rhythm. The Jukes' horn section keeps the music buoyant with its old-fashioned, precision soul charts; Rascals Felix Cavaliere and Dino Danelli add the likable accessibility of pop-soul.
The songwriting and production promise that Van Zandt displayed with the Asbury Jukes and Gary "U.S." Bonds is finally fulfilled on "Men Without Women." He writes much more in the street-corner style of Willie "Mink" Deville than the state highway style of Bruce Springsteen. Van Zandt proves much more adept than Deville as he creates a wonderful ethnic screenplay-song, "Princess of Little Italy," complete with wistful accordion, and a stylish leather-jacket teen memoir, "Forever," complete with swaggering baritone sax. "Under the Gun" and "Save Me" rock out in Rolling Stones style with convincing urgency. The album's melodies are rich--especially on "Angel Eyes" and "Inside of Me"--and the arrangements are full-bodied. The biggest weakness is Van Zandt's thin, small voice, but his earnestness and omnipresent swinging horns more than compensate for that.