In the first half-decade of their association together, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had already hit some pretty spectacular highs and lows on a condensed timeline. Virtually from day one, the group established that they had some great potential to write hits (see “American Girl,” “Here Comes My Girl” and “Refugee” as easy and fantastic examples), but also an impressive ability to write some pretty cringe-worthy tripe too (as evidenced by “Nightwatchman,” “The Wild One Forever” and “Luna”).
The band was either great or godawful – there never seemed to be any middle ground between those poles. Some might question the need for such middle ground or the music it normally occupies (“All they need is to write big hits always, don’t they?”), but it is important. The middle ground is that which gives fans the foundation to appreciate the highs and lows and gives the group in question a sense of stability. Without the middle ground, a band is in danger of being a disposable pop act which is perfectly forgettable when they’re not on their best game and, eventually, it becomes easy to take for granted when they are.
Without that kind of logic included, calling an album like Long After Dark by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers a perfectly middle-of-the-road release would likely come off as damning but, with that aforementioned context in mind, it (hopefully) becomes understandable why this album is so important.
Establishing a middle ground
Within the context of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ catalogue to that point in time (Long After Dark was originally released in 1982), there’s no arguing that “One Story Town” opens the A-side of the album with the sort of swagger and stomp of a band who is ready to get to work and is focussed precisely upon where it is headed. Here, listeners will find the band flaunting a renewed punch and power (which may have come from the addition of newcomer Howie Epstein on bass and back-up vocals to the group) as Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench and Sam Lynch hit the ground running.
There is already the sense that the band is a group of road-hardened warriors returning home here as “One Story Town” swells beautifully in spite of intending to be small as Petty knocks out lines like, “I’m for standing up, I’m for breaking free/ I don’t want fate handed down to me” and the Heartbreakers keep the song’s sound simple and small – sort of down-homey in arrangement with no spectacular sonics anywhere in the mix. Even now, thirty-five years after its first release, the beginning represented by “One Story Town” feels simultaneously introverted and fantastic too – in a way.
With “One Story Town” having set the levels of expectation high, “You Got Lucky” (the second song on the side) falters a little thanks to the very New Wave-y keyboards which just feel as though they were tacked on because “it’s a single” and there was a hope of attracting appeal from a New Wave audience (in 2017 listeners will still love the song because it is that good while also ignoring those keys), but manages to reconcile that shortcoming with the love-lost epic “Deliver Me,” the hard feelings rocker “Change Of Heart” and “Finding Out” (which sticks with the hard feelings as lines like “I’ve had enough of all this hardcore loneliness/ I don’t think pain is so romantic” attest) all lining up in succession thereafter.
As listeners follow the side, they’ll find it easy to sink deeper under the band’s spell song-by-song and the way “Finding Out” leaves them will almost have them feeling slighted that they have to lift the needle so soon; in this case, while the vinyl this reissue is pressed into is glorious, the non-stop front-to-back ride offered by a CD is very, very attractive.
While listeners may still be wishing for no break between sides as they flip the record over, they’ll still find delights on the B-, if they’re patient. After “We Stand A Chance” opens the side and adds a bit of credence to those New Wave comparisons (the on-the-and stroke which comes close to ska as well as the very “Police-y” sounding synths may have felt a little exciting in 1982, but just make the song feel impossibly dated now), the band finds another way to sound heartbroken, pissed off and still poppy with “Straight Into Darkness.”
There, without actually abandoning the Southern Rock form they’d perfected by the time they released this, their fifth album, the Heartbreakers rev up their guitar attack and infuse a bit of the burgeoning L.A. Rock sound which was beginning to break through at that time into it (no, they’re nowhere near Guns N’ Roses or anything like that, but there’s still a bit of glamor and bite about the song, regardless) and manage to do it without alienating listeners. There is a bit of beef and power behind Petty here when he croons the title lyric and the result could have crooning it back while also throwing fists in the air in front of the live stage.
After that, Petty and the band come close to touching on Bowie-esque glam through “The Same Old You” and then closer to “good ol’ boy” Southern Rock with disillusionment of “Two Worlds” before sort of cat-calling their way out on an Island Pop wave with “A Wasted Life” to close the proceedings down. Listening to “A Wasted Life” now, decades after its release, it’s really hard to tell if this wasn’t supposed to be a silly and ironic ending but, even if it wasn’t supposed to be that originally, it plays well enough that way now. After all, with so many heavy, emotional touchstones included here, it feels good to think that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers didn’t feel too big to be cute at the dawn of the Eighties.
Now, standing back from it, readers may feel like my assertion of this album filling the “perfectly average” void with had been previously vacant in the band’s catalogue is a bit of an overstatement. After all, the words in this review are generally glowing and positive – how does one call it average? Well, it’s true that the songs are good – but the bombast which buoyed songs like “The Waiting” and “Refugee” is absent and there aren’t any ballads in this running either – there are just ten good rock songs bound together on a single album.
That might not sound like praise at first, but keep in mind that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had released no album which could make the same claim before. In that regard, Long After Dark was a first and, were the band to just play this album from front-to-back onstage with none of the bombastic big singles from the other albums included, it would still make for a good, crowd-pleasing show.