Album Review: An American Treasure – Tom Petty

TomPetty package photo

Tom Petty died just over a year ago and in a blog post I wrote back in December, I noted how the word “legend” is overused, but clearly not in the case of Petty himself. A few weeks ago came the first posthumous release – a box set that collected songs from throughout Petty’s career from the mid-70s to the last few years.

I’ll be honest, when I first heard about the collection, my immediate reaction was that I probably wouldn’t buy it. Not because it wouldn’t be packed with great music but because I already owned so many of his albums – including probably the best six pounds I ever spent on music with the two-disc anthology a few years back – that I didn’t think that I would get too much out of yet another “best of collection”. I mean, how many versions of “The Waiting”, “Free Fallin’” or “Refugee” did you need to know that Tom Petty is one of the greatest songwriters of the rock era? But then I read the reviews and made good use of my Spotify subscription to listen to a few tracks and before too long, I’d ordered the set. So here are my thoughts on this release – not an in-depth review because there are already a ton of those on the internet. But I’ll try to give a decent overview and point out some of my highlights.

This collection is available in two formats, and the one I’m talking about is the deluxe version, which has 63 tracks (60 songs) spread across 4 discs (the standard version has 26 tracks on 2 discs). It was curated by two of Petty’s bandmates (guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench), his eldest daughter Adria, widow Dana and producer Ryan Ulyate.

Box sets featuring music by well-known artists are usually not cheap, but one of the factors that made me think that this purchase was worthwhile was the price tag: a mere £16.99. The standard edition is £12.99, but for the additional music, the extra £4 was more than worth it – particularly as the standard set does not include two of the highlights of the collection. The package is delivered in a very nice format – a kind of mini-photobook with a booklet that is an integral part of the packaging and includes extensive notes on all of the songs featured. The four discs themselves are housed in cardboard sleeves that are also fixed into the packaging. In summary, it’s a very nice physical presentation that looks great on a book or album shelf.

The tracks themselves generally fall into one of four categories:- previously unreleased songs, live performances, alternative takes, and “deep album cuts”. There are also three short tracks made up of concert intros and a promo spot. The song choice for this box set is interesting, and I can see why those involved in the selection have taken the route that they did. None of Tom Petty’s best-known songs is featured here in its original format. In fact, the closest that you get to classic Tom Petty hit is the live version of “I Won’t Back Down” that kicks off disc #3. So straight away, we see that this is not the best choice for the casual fan, but clearly a release for true Tom Petty fans who are looking for a bit more than another greatest hits collection. Disc #1 highlights include a live version of “Breakdown” and an alternative version of “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” from their debut album. In the liner notes for this track, Mike Campbell explains that the original album track was speeded up using a VSO (variable speed oscillator) and that the version now presented is at original speed.

Disc #2 is where the real gold is on An American Treasure. Previously unreleased versions of “Keep A Little Soul” and “Keeping Me Alive” are two of the best songs in the set, and it shows how many songs Tom and the band had to choose from during the Long After Dark sessions. Those who have seen Peter Bogdanovic’s excellent Running Down A Dream documentary will remember seeing a clip of the band running through “Keeping Me Alive” and it’s great to see it included here (although a version was on 1995’s Playback box set). From 1987’s underrated Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), there’s a version of “The Damage You’ve Done”. I love this song, but I always wondered why on the original album, it faded in as the band were playing. The version we get here has a proper start with Tom shouting instructions to the band and it’s this kind of take that makes the box set so worthwhile, showing a slightly different angle to songs that we know so well.

My favourite track in this collection appears near the end of disc #2. “Walkin’ Through The Fire”, originally recorded for the Southern Accents album, includes lyrics that would eventually appear in the song “My Life/Your World” on Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough). The track starts with languid slide guitar and builds into a swampy rocker that, being brutally honest, if far better than most of the tracks that eventually appeared on Southern Accents.

Disc #3 features tracks from the 90s including the previously unreleased rockabilly number “Lonesome Dave” and one of my favourite tracks from Wildflowers – the majestic “Crawling Back To You”. Highlights on disc #4 include “Two Me Talking”, a bluesy epic recorded for the Mojo sessions and a full band version of “Saving Grace”, the opening track from Petty’s 2006 solo album Highway Companion.

Overall, I’d say that An American Treasure is a fine package that any Tom Petty fan would love. Given the intentional exclusion of hit singles, it’s not for the casual fan, but this brings some lesser-known tracks to the fore, and some of the unreleased material is superb. At £16.99, this deluxe package is worthy of a place in any serious music collection.

Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright”, a mystery that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.

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