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SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 4 -- Pictured:  Musical guest Tom Petty &

I like Tom Petty. If like me, however, you discovered Petty after 1987, how he sounds on those early singles takes…getting used to. Rob Sheffield voted him second worst singer ever, and I understand (re “Breakdown”: “Tom snuggles up to a très seductive French accent for what still holds up as his career performance in terms of all-around revoltingness”). But as the man himself sang something changed when he met Jeff Lynne and recorded my favorite Petty album.

In the catbird seat after recording a solo album that became his biggest seller, Tom Petty eased into 1991 thinking he could play Woodrow Wilson to Lynne’s Lloyd George and the Heartbreakers’ collective Clemenceau, unaware that he was mediating between two forces uninterested in comity. Taking advantage of the combined geezer/MTV support earned by Full Moon Fever, Into The Great Wide Open applied Jeff Lynne’s lacquered productions to the usual batch of Heartbreakers songs: “rocking” in a blustery way, meaningful in an obvious way. What separates my generation from the one that grew up with Damn The Torpedoes as its Petty benchmark is its willingness to exchange a certain midtempo mushiness for vocal understatement. To put it simply, Petty sucks as a singer. He whines when he wants to roar, yowls like a man whose Pomeranian bit his toe when he thinks he’s expressing the restlessness in his soul; in the wrong listening mood, his would-be anthems devolve into rants. Maybe Lynne’s habit of cushioning Petty with sixteen thousand overdubbed acoustic guitars did the trick. Suddenly “Learning To Fly” projects a detachment that feels earned instead of affected (in 1983 “Learning To Fly” would’ve sounded like Petty wanted sympathy for not sullying his principles with octagonal drums and eyeliner). A typical example of early nineties CD bloat, ITGWO limps to its conclusion burdened by songs whose hooks don’t compensate for their familiarity (Greil Marcus favorite “Out in the Cold” kicks up a lot of parched dust), but the expanded running time gives Petty room to stretch in ways he never did — or would again.

A full third of these songs address friendship; the characters in Petty’s songs hasten to assure “you” of his fidelity even as he’s stepping away, never to return. “Two Gunslingers” actually stoops to limn a narrative; its pirouetting synth hook tugs at the “I’m taking control of my life” as if Petty suddenly understood paradox and counterpoint (his refusal to seek “closure” is another plus). “You And I Will Meet Again” has the kind of graceful, unaffected acceptance of fate that I expect from a Rosanne Cash song, with drum track and harmonies to match.

It’s Petty’s curse that his longevity entitles him to any kind of scrutiny. As nimble as the Heartbreakers have been over the years they don’t match Mellencamp’s Kenny Aronoff-anchored backing band for toughness, or the E Street Band’s incorporation of synth-pop tropes that signified their reluctant acceptance of how Things Have Changed between men and women. I suppose there are worse things to be than the William Dean Howells of rock, whose considerable craft is its own reward instead of startling listeners with freckles of hysteria. Petty’s curse is to straddle the fault lines of rock’s version of modernism and rock’s intrinsic need to affirm verities no one but his generational cohort believes in anymore. Into The Great Wide Open makes for a fascinating case study: the Tory hires his idea of a Liberal to form a coalition government, ignorant of the fact that hanging out with George Harrison and Bob Dylan tends to contaminate one’s ideas of progress. But I understand my adolescent attraction to this album — teenagers are a pretty conservative bunch; we won’t back down.

1. Refugee
2. A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)
3. Rebels
4. Jammin’ Me
5. Crawling Back to You
6. Something Big
7. Listen to Your Heart
8. You and I Will Meet Again
9. Runnin’ Down a Dream
10. Waiting For Tonight
11. Finding Out
12. Runaway Trains
13. You Got It
14. Here Comes My Girl
15. All Mixed Up
16. Two Gungslingers
17. Fault Lines
18. Last Night
19. Honey Bee
20. Wildflowers