Torpedoes is, believe it or not, the only Petty album I own. I never even had Full Moon Fever in its heyday. K— had a copy of the Greatest Hits back in college, and that always seemed like enough. Lo and behold, I may not have been wrong.
Not that Torpedoes is bad, but for an album reputed to be among Petty's best, if not the best, there's a disappointing paucity of hidden gems. Four of the nine tracks (including "Refugee" and "Don't Do Me Like That") are well-known singles that we've all heard before, and they clearly account for the album's reputation. The rest of the cuts are mostly filler, none of them awful, none of them especially memorable.
The closest we get to a lesser-known classic is the closing number, a mid-tempo ballad called "Louisiana Rain". Petty seems to be striving for epic status with this one, but it falls slightly short. I just feel like, good as the song may be, it lacks that album-closer feeling (Would you know it was the closer if I hadn't told you?), and I think of Petty as the kind of guy who needs strong closers.
Having emerged in the mid-seventies, Petty represents the tail-end of the previous generation of old-school classic rockers, the ones being rebelled against by the punks and new-wavers who arose around the same time. For the crowd Petty rolled with, the closing number was key for any album, and had been since the Beatles put out "A Day in the Life" ten years earlier.
Petty's music, like that of his contemporary Springsteen, is characterised (though perhaps not as explicitly as Springsteen's) by a reverence for rock history, an obligation to carry on traditions only recently established. Torpedoes was Petty's third album. Having made the brash debut and the frustrating sophomore effort (both classic rock clichés in and of themselves), his third was supposed to be the mature, confident album that established him as one of rock's staple artists. And it did, in every sense.
But what the album lacks is great songs beyond the singles, songs for the next generation of fans like myself to find when they discover Petty and decide to dig deeper. Springsteen's second album, for instance, is composed almost entirely of those kind of songs. I think a stronger closing number would have gone a long way toward reinforcing this album's classic status. And what "Louisiana Rain" really needs to fulfill that role is a five-minute guitar solo after the second chorus.
Yes, you could argue that the lengthy solo represents a facile shortcut to epic status, that the resulting song would get there by merely signifying epic-ness rather than earning it. I might not agree, but it's a valid argument. But I still think a five-minute guitar solo would carry "Louisiana Rain" from good to great. On the other hand, you can probably say that about pretty much any song.
From my deck to you: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers –