Hard Promises

Hard Promises

With 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had finally achieved mainstream success. And on 1981’s Hard Promises, the band members struggled on how to deal with their hard-fought new fame. By the time of the album’s release, Petty had famously gone toe to toe with his record label, opting to file for bankruptcy rather than serve out what he saw as an oppressive contract. But Petty was also butting heads with the music industry as a whole, using his new fame as a platform to rail against a proposed “superstar pricing” tier that would raise the price of a new Heartbreakers album from $8.98 to $9.98—a significant hike at a time when the minimum wage was $3.35. The battles were good publicity, good politics and good fortification for the stories Petty wrote and sang. On Hard Promises, Petty laments the mess his ex got into while saving a little sympathy for himself (“A Woman in Love (It's Not Me)”), lives for the moment, in spite of not knowing what comes next (“The Waiting”) and feels funny about the newfangled outfits the guys are trying to sell him in London (“Kings Road”). If Springsteen fashioned himself as a voice of the people, Petty often just seemed like, well, a person: cranky, jealous, yearning and amused. And as for the Heartbreakers? The band members come off as less jittery than usual on Hard Promises. They’re still fundamentally geared to rock, but they’re also comfortable leaning back a little, as proved by the Dylan-in-the-desert ballad “Something Big”, or the light funk workout “Nightwatchman”—songs that lyrically and musically forsook the bold-faced immediacy of “The Waiting” for something more nuanced and indirect. That doesn’t mean the group’s songwriting was getting obscure—after all, this was still Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. But Petty and the band had gotten comfortable enough to fan out and experiment a little. Before Torpedoes, they’d always known where they were heading; with Hard Promises they started to draw their own map.

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