Tom Petty’s ‘An American Treasure’ Offers a Retrospective Look at an American Icon

Tom Petty has a recorded output spanning from 1976 to 2016. A voice of several generations, he never settled into a comfortable, accessible sound, but rather, evolved through distinct phases, each one resonating with the masses enough to earn universal adulation, while still always retaining a core integrity that put his personal stamp on everything he did. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ music screamed the ‘80s, and 1989’s “Free Fallin’” couldn’t have more prophetically, sonically rung in the decade that was to come. Everyone in a bar or stadium has heard “Free Fallin’,” and the new four-part, sixty-track collection, “An American Treasure,” shows how much versatility, substance, and style there was behind Petty. As for real fans of Petty, the new set provides an intimate inside look into the artist on numerous levels, sure to prove a real treat for any who have been longing for more music from the artist that they love.

It’s a painstakingly, lovingly curated collection well above the cheap, tawdry ranks of “Greatest Hits” records. You already know the hits, and we all know that, so if you find any hits here, they’ll be either in the form of the most monumental, celebrated and cherished live recordings, or in the form of alternate versions, giving you a look into the creative processes that led to divergent imaginative ends. There are some deep cuts on the set, so as to highlight often overlooked aspects of a multidimensional artist. Also included are rarities, and even unreleased tracks. The title, “An American Treasure,” is a well-deserved name, as Petty embodied the American dream. He started from humble beginnings, rose to the top with no ostensible gimmick or artifice whatsoever, became an icon, and always stayed humble. Plus, aside from some of the ‘80s output, he simply sounds so quintessentially American that we can celebrate him as a sort of sonically representative expression of American culture and spirit. In turn, this collection is an homage to that expression.      

Petty’s wife Dana, his daughter Adria, producer Ryan Ulyate, and bandmates Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench all sorted through the archives to select the material that appears on the collection. They’ve picked tracks in chronological order, giving you an effective sense of passing through overhead the dense output through the years. 1976’s “Surrender” shows up in a form strikingly different, mainly because a single alteration. Anyone familiar with the original will notice that this outtake sounds comparatively organic. It’s because those giant ‘80s snares have been jettisoned. The regular drums have been increased in volume, and allowed to fill the mix, rather than be accentuated by bombastic filler sounds. While it somes take away some of the distinctly ‘80s charm, this song finds Petty in full ‘80s vocal style, so all it does is give it a slightly moderated tweak. A similar case is that of “Rebels,” the song that famously frustrated Petty so much that he punched the wall so forcefully that for a while, it was uncertain whether he’d even be able to play guitar anymore. The rendition included here scraps the drum machines, and offers a more natural envisioning.

The lead single from the set is “Keep a Little Soul,” an outtake from the 1982 “Long After Dark” sessions. Upon listening, you can’t help but wonder why this was an outtake, as it sounds like a readymade single. It’s instantly infectious, punchy, and abounding with personality. It’s an illustrative example of that specific era in Petty’s artistic evolution, and it goes to show how many solid songs get cut during the making of an album. Of course, posthumous releases are an ethically murky business, as some would say that an artist’s choice to keep a song away from the public should be maintained, in respect for his/her decision. On the other hand, it’s not as if these are shabby embarrassing demos or anything. And more importantly, the decisions about what to include were made by Petty’s closest ones. Guitarist Campbell has explained, “I just pretended he was sitting next to me. I’d say, ‘Should we use this or not? Tom, what do you think?’ Yes? No?’ That became my barometer.”

“Gainesville,” an outtake from 1998, is a particularly meaningful song, as it refers to Petty’s hometown of Gainesville, Florida. In the VH1 “Behind the Music” documentary, there’s a clip of Petty’s father saying, in as matter-of-fact of a way as possible, that what he’s happiest about is that his son was able to do something he loved. There’s no compromising money chasing here, just pure passion, and it’s something that growing up in such an environment fosters. The song is a nostalgic look back, originally cut because it didn’t fit the darker overall tone of 1999’s “Echo.” Often, songs are cut not because they’re inferior but simply because they don’t fit the mold of the current project, so it’s only just that numbers like this have come to eventually see the light of day, and be appreciated.

Amid all the outtakes and rarities, there are live versions of such hits as “Breakdown” and “I Won’t Back Down.” The latter is especially poignant, as it really captures the unadulterated, unvarnished spirit, as well as the awe of an audience. Hearing Petty’s inflections, and the audience’s enamored reactions in real time can make your hair stand on end, and reminds you how powerful music is after all. After a listen to the entire set of songs here, you have to take a step back, and wonder at how big and bold of a force in popular music Tom Petty really was. One of the most satisfying things about this release is how much it is not a Greatest Hits collection. Next time, you see a Greatest Hits collection, burn the wretched thing. There are so many despicable attempts to milk the fanbase of a hero by releasing, say, a neglected voice recording placed over a big-budget beat once a year, with a grand promotional campaign. This set couldn’t be further from that. The songs are picked with a discriminating regard for what fans would like, and what Petty himself would like. All in all, it gives a glimpse into so many facets the live performances, the neglected pieces, the alternate cuts unearthed treasures, making due on the title “An American Treasure.”

An American Treasure” is available Sept. 28 on Apple Music.