This may not be anybody else’s favorite Tom Petty album. Petty himself was totally dismissive of it — in a 2015 article he said about it, “I hated that record –- the whole idea of it offended me. I only did it because I didn’t have anything else to do.” And you can forget about the movie it’s attached to. That’s easy to do, because it’s a completely forgettable movie.
But this is my favorite Tom Petty album, and has been ever since it was released. Don’t get me wrong — I love his whole catalog dearly, from evergreens like Damn The Torpedoes! and Full Moon Fever to brilliant dark horses like Long After Dark and The Last DJ. It’s this album, though, that brings out the deepest feelings in me, and I think that’s because it came from a deep dark place in Petty.
She’s The One was released in 1996, the same year Petty’s 22-year marriage finally fell apart for good, and relationship pain pervades many of the album’s best songs. The refrain of “Grew Up Fast” is:
Well you know who I am
So don’t treat me like I’m someone else
Well you know what I am
So don’t act like I’m something else
You never act like that with no one else
To anybody who’s been in a seriously troubled relationship, that sentiment should sound very familiar. But even more powerful is Petty’s vocal — the seeming bemusement of the verses doesn’t quite cover a deeply bitter tone, which bursts into tortured frustration on the chorus. After the bridge, the Heartbreakers build intensity through a spiral staircase of ascending chords undergirded with powerful drumbeats, exploding back into the chorus, which Petty snarls through before finally sinking into resignation. And then he exclaims, “Oh!” as Benmont Tench starts a skittering organ solo. We can hear a “Yeah!” from Petty in the background as Mike Campbell skates through a complementary guitar solo. The emotion behind those two exclamations encapsulates the song — frustrated, pissed off, profoundly sad.
Even more poignant are the opening lines of “Supernatural Radio”:
If there’s gonna be trouble tonight
You can meet me at the usual place
If there’s gonna be a fight tonight
Remember what you said to my face
Oh and darlin’, too many words have been spoken
I don’t wanna get my heart broken
Like lovers do
Oh, the way Petty sings these. It’s the definition of heartbreak. It’s the sound of someone acutely alone and lonely inside his relationship, whose love is so lost that he’s always ready for trouble and fights, but who is so weary of them that he’d rather just go to bed. But he knows he won’t be able to. When too many words have been spoken, the heart is already broken, but there’s a place far beyond that, one so outside of love that love feels like a foreign concept. And then, so tenderly, he sings, “I can hear you singin’ on my supernatural radio.” What is that? I think it’s the piece of his heart that’s still in love. When the relationship is ashes and the love is dead, its ghost can still sing to you, a haunting reminder of past happiness that can never be yours again.
There are two cover songs on the album, both following this anguished vein. Beck’s song “Asshole” has a straightforward enough sentiment: “She’ll do anything to make you feel like an asshole.” It’s a bit morose, a bit resigned. “Change The Locks” is a whole other story. This Lucinda Williams song is all about taking action, getting away. It’s brilliantly constructed, telling a story that escalates in rage and intensity. Every verse is a new step in escaping an ex-lover, building with an inexorable logic and explaining each action. Changing the locks is just the beginning — soon he’s changing his phone number, his car, his clothes, and by the end he’s changing the name of his town. All so she can’t find him anymore.
Every couple of steps, the Heartbreakers slam down with power chords, and after a few steps Petty lets out another one of those “Oh!” exclamations that say so much with so little. The final verse recapitulates all the others, every step boiled into one piece, finally reaching “I changed the name of this town”, repeated twice. And then, Petty screams as the chords crash down once more. It’s a magnificent, spine-tingling moment of pure emotion.
Amid all this suffering, Petty finds a way to bring hope on board, with two songs that each appear twice (in different versions) on the record. “Walls” was the album’s first single, specifically the more produced version of it, “Walls (Circus).” Lindsey Buckingham sings backup on the track, a dazzling reminder of how great he can sound when he’s blending in rather than taking over. The lyrics are some of Petty’s simplest, most direct, and best:
All around your island
There’s a barricade
It keeps out the danger
It holds in the pain
Sometimes you’re happy
And sometimes you cry
Half of me is ocean
Half of me is sky
And then there’s “Angel Dream”. Aside from Full Moon Fever‘s “Alright For Now”, I think this is Petty’s most beautiful ballad, shining a golden beam of light through the darkness of the album. The connection Petty describes, “caught my lifeline”, is a rescue from ultimate darkness, and his gratitude runs to the bone when he sings, “I can only thank God it was not too late.” It’s enough to make you believe in love again. I miss Tom Petty terribly, but I can only thank God he left us gems like this.