The War On Drugs
[Secretly Canadian; 2011]
During SXSW this past spring, my friend Sewer asked me if I like Tom Petty. This question caught me off guard for two reasons:
1. Sewer was my punk rock compass growing up, and the idea of him liking Tom Petty seemed alien to me.
2. I’d never considered Tom Petty as a legitimately respected artist.
I mulled the question over: Do I like Tom Petty? I don’t dislike him and his merry band of Heartbreakers (side note: worst back-up band name ever). My mom played albums like “Full Moon Fever” and “Into the Great Wide Open” in the car when I was a kid, and I never protested. Now that I think about it, Petty’s “Refugee” was my favorite song on Alvin and the Chipmunk’s “Chipmunk Punk” album (an album completely devoid of anything that resembled punk – Linda Ronstadt, Billy Joel, and Queen?!).
Sewer’s question got me thinking. Petty is obviously a talented songwriter with hits like “Running Down a Dream” and “Free Fallin” under his belt, but does he belong in the same pantheon as Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan? At the time of my conversation with Sewer, I didn’t think so, but recent albums have me questioning my petty treatment of Petty.
It all started with Kurt Vile’s “Smoke Ring for My Halo.” My obsession with this album has been well documented here at BDWPS. I’d heard Petty comparisons with Kurt Vile, yet I didn’t put much merit to them beyond the jangly guitars and vocal stylings. Petty’s lyrics have never delved into the morose terrain that is the region Vile traverses for over 45 minutes on “Halo.” Maybe that’s all Petty’s music is missing? Sure he can write catchy melodies like Neil Young and tell entertaining tales like Springsteen, but none of it means anything if it doesn’t have the same soul and honesty behind it. Am I going to far to lump Petty in with the rest of the music making machine?
Last week my indifference to Petty was challenged again upon first listen to The War On Drugs “Slave Ambient.” Not coincidentally, The War On Drugs happen to be Kurt Vile’s former band. Without Vile, the Philadelphia outfit doesn’t sound like it misses their frontman much (more than I can imagine The Heartbreakers could say for themselves). The absence of Vile is difficult to discern thanks to Adam Granduciel’s ability to pick up the reigns. Both these 2011 albums feature that distinct Petty sound, which ironically, I never found to be distinct before now. Yet there it is, the steadfast drum beats, the anthemic rock guitars, and of course, the crooning style that Tom Petty stole from Bob Dylan years ago. And maybe therein lies the true influence; legend has it that Vile and Graduciel met at a party a decade ago and hit it off due to their shared love of, not Petty, but Dylan. The entire driving force behind The War On Drugs was to create a modern interpretation of “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Acolytes of Dylan still keeping his influence alive on “Blackwater” (no relation to the Doobie Brothers):
If taking Dylan’s harmonica, narrative lyrics, and nasal vocals then adding a wall of reverb and krautrock synths results in something that sounds like Tom Petty, than I suppose the comparisons are merited. On the surface every song on “Slave Ambient” has that oh so familiar rock n’ roll pop song demeanor, but the lyrics and the wall of synthesizer drone constantly takes each song into a cozy, lush direction that is somehow, always unexpected. It sneaks up on you; enveloping you in a mist of disorienting proggy atmosphere. It sounds like such a simple pairing, yet I can’t think of another artist who has so masterfully taken these two unique colors and mixed them so subtly.
Krautrock, meet Dylan. Dylan, meet Krautrock- “Your Love Is Calling My Name”:
In the end, I suppose critics are either giving Petty too much credit by calling him an influence on these guys, or maybe they haven’t given Petty enough credit over the years due simply to his ability to make one hit song after another. Whatever the case, I have to admit that I’m in love with “Slave Ambient,” an album that sounds eerily like something Tom Petty would have done 3o years ago if he had the creative fortitude to venture into darker territories, and of course, if he had just a smidgen of soul.