Matt Brundage

Nitpicking Paste

Paste Magazine‘s article “100 Best Living Songwriters” (June/July 2006) places Tom Petty in the top thirty, citing his “…unerring songwriting instincts.” Yet, in the August 2006 issue, the magazine takes him to task for his shallow songwriting in a review of his latest album, Highway Companion. Music critic Geoffrey Himes even named his full-page review “The Writing is the Hardest Part.” Ouch. Himes intimates that Petty’s lyrical weakness is not a new phenomenon, but has been with him since his early hits. Granted, Petty’s inclusion on the “Best Living Songwriters” list may be the result of over thirty years of consistent material, not for one recent album. However, the very songs cited in June/July as being classics (“American Girl,” “Refugee” and “The Waiting”) are more or less looked down upon in August as lyrically “shallow” and memorable only for their classic rock sound.

2 Responses to “Nitpicking Paste”

  1. Songwriting must be judged on context as well as content. In my mind, Tom Petty is one of the great songwriters of the last thirt years for his consistency and the seamless way his melody, chord structure and lyrics fit together. Yeah, he’s posted a few duds along the way, but the body of work is incredibly solid from the word go…and he’s always improving. “Highway Companion” is as strong as “Wildflower,” which has ranked as his best album.

    Saying Tom’s lyrics are weak is sort of a non-starter. A song can be about anything. Just because the lyrics don’t go ‘deep’ doesn’t make it any less of a well-written song. Writing about a ‘Big Weekend’ is still as valid as writing about the loss of friendship in ‘Don’t Fade on Me.’ Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top put it well when he said that their audiences still want to hear songs about cars, girls and partying. And they still keep mashing those three chords around. In fact, I would argue that writing music in a restricting ‘pop rock’ format is harder than a lot of other kinds of music: you have to stick closer to convention.

    Tom’s songs stand up well after 20 or 30 years. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s got a firecracker band on stage that can bring them to vivid life.

  2. I haven’t picked up Highway Companion yet, so my musings come only from what I’ve read. But right off the bat, I had the feeling that the Himes album review was a bit unfair.

    I thought the writing on The Last DJ was solid, perhaps because Petty was shooting ideas off of a concrete theme, namely, the “greedy” record industry. Even though some of the songs weren’t on topic, the album nonetheless remains cohesive. I’m looking forward to hearing what Highway Companion has to offer.