Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
The Last DJ
The Music Box's #8 album for 2002
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2002, Volume 9, #12
Written by John Metzger
There’s no denying the raw talent and brute force that Tom Petty brought to his first few albums. His best music, however, has been made in the past decade where his maturity as an artist has meshed beautifully with a larger production budget to create masterpieces such as Wildflowers and Echo. On his latest outing The Last DJ — originally titled The Golden Circle — Petty once again has crafted an epic recording by tackling a topic of personal interest. This time, however, he turns his anger away from affairs of the heart and towards the vast wasteland of the music industry and all of its enablers.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that Petty has put together an album that is thematic in nature. In fact, Wildflowers, the She’s the One soundtrack, and Echo largely followed Petty’s marital travails and the blossoming of a new relationship. But The Last DJ is his most overtly conceptual outing — a two-act rock opera, if you will, that harkens back to the day when albums were works of art, not batches of mass-produced, mass-marketed songs with no discernable connection to one another.
The first half of the story — most notably The Last DJ, Money Becomes King, and Joe — deals directly with the myriad of problems within the music business, from corporate-sponsored tours to the homogenization of radio, from sleazy record company executives to audiences that pay little heed to the music. To his credit, Petty keeps the music airy and light, even going so far as to augment several tracks with sweeping string arrangements that flutter and glide majestically above his bilious words. As a result, much of the album recalls ’60s and ’70s icons like The Beatles, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, and Pink Floyd. When it’s needed most, Petty does unleash his anger with a torrential sneer, but by following a more melodic and harmonious musical path, he injects some much needed buoyancy to his songs, smoothing out the bumpy curves of his sometimes heavy-handed message.
That said, The Last DJ is a far cry from a non-stop, venomous outburst. True, it has its moments, but there’s much more time devoted to Petty’s fond reflections on the past (Dreamville) and his hope for the future (Can’t Stop the Sun). Indeed, even love songs such as Like a Diamond transcend their literal meanings to become something more. The reason Petty chose to craft an album about the music business is that he loves what he does, and he can’t stand to see it get corrupted the way that it has. When he sings, "She goes on forever/Yeah, she’s gonna shine forever/Like a diamond/In the sunlight," one knows he’s singing about rock ’n‘ roll in all its many glorious formats and faces.
It’s doubtful that anything within the music business is going to change simply because Petty chose to sound off on the corruption of his one true love. But he’s a man with principles, and one can’t blame him for sticking to them. That The Last DJ is filled with music so sweet and pure — and includes some of the sunniest pop songs he’s ever created — makes the bitter truth about the industry at large all the easier to digest.
Of Further Interest...
The Last DJ is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2002 The Music Box