20 Years Ago: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Barely Hold It Together on ‘Echo’
Everything Tom Petty touched turned to platinum during the '90s, starting with the sales carryover from his 1989 solo debut Full Moon Fever and continuing through a series of bestselling releases that included a pair of albums with the Heartbreakers, the solo Wildflowers LP and a greatest-hits record that boasted a couple new hits of its own. When Petty and the Heartbreakers announced an April 13, 1999, release for their 10th studio LP, Echo, expectations were understandably high.
Looking at the liner notes, it seemed reasonable to assume that Echo was destined to become yet another huge hit for Petty and his bandmates. Like Petty's previous release, a soundtrack album for the 1996 Edward Burns movie She's the One, as well as 1994's Wildflowers, the new LP boasted the involvement of producer Rick Rubin, who'd helped give Petty's recent work a slightly rougher, more no-nonsense sound while working to maintain the focus on songwriting that had made the band such reliable hitmakers.
But if the personnel was basically the same, it was evident that Echo presented a different Petty. Clustering together 15 songs that weighed in at more than an hour in length, the album announced itself with "Room at the Top," a five-minute lament of lost love that begins on a starkly defiant note before closing with the gut-wrenching plea "Please love me, I'm not so bad / And I love you so." In between, there's a howling middle section in which Mike Campbell's guitar is unleashed over a stomping Steve Ferrone beat — but through it all, Petty sounds broken, resigned, defeated.
Like "Room at the Top" — a song Petty once sarcastically described as "one of the most depressing songs in rock history" — Echo is a record that rocks in its way, but is permeated by the same stark sonic palette reflected by its somber black-and-white cover photo. It comes across, in a way, like an echo of the sound — and the band — fans had come to expect.
There were some very good real-life reasons for this. "I had some long periods of severe depression," Petty told USA Today. "I took some hard knocks and retreated from the world and lived in this little cabin. I didn't see a lot of people. I wasn't happy, and I didn't want to lay that on everybody. Even when I was in public, I didn't want to be there, and that's a terrible feeling. It took me a while to want to come back."
Even the biggest rock stars have contractual obligations to worry about, however, and Petty's pulled him back into active duty before he was really ready to face the prospect of making a new album.
"I think Echo was probably the most scattered I’ve ever been," he told Dean Goodman. "I never played it. I looked at the cover the other day and there was a song or two I didn’t recognize, I don’t even remember writing. It was a very hard time when I did that record. It was the only record I did kinda under the gun in my life where there was this huge tour booked and I had to finish the record."
The hard time, as fans were aware, stemmed from Petty's divorce. "Divorces are really furious things to go through, really draining," he explained. "So to try to make a record and get my life together at the same time was really rough."
It all added up to what Petty called "a very dark record" — and one he didn't have the strength to support once it was out in stores. "I didn’t do anything to promote it. I didn’t do any promotion. I didn’t make a video. I didn’t do nothing. I think that probably played into it. Plus," he conceded, "I don’t know how good it is."
Many artists are their own worst critics, and while Echo may not be a great album by Petty's estimation, even the worst Tom Petty record is better than many other artists' best. Although it still represented a bit of a tumble from the lofty heights he'd enjoyed with releases such as Into the Great Wide Open and Wildflowers, reviews were generally kind and the album sold respectably, peaking at No. 10 while going gold and sending three singles ("Free Girl Now," "Swingin'" and "Room at the Top") into the Top 20 at Mainstream Rock radio.
Watch Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Perform 'Room at the Top'
Ultimately, Petty himself found a way to love an album that represented a painful snapshot from a dark personal period. "I think that my life was such a circus at that time, that I don’t think I felt like I was there half of the time," he told Paul Zollo in Conversations With Tom Petty. "I know Rick doesn’t feel like I was there half of the time. But I was."
After some prompting from his second wife, he finally listened to the album, and was surprised by what he heard. "I thought for the longest time that I didn’t like it. And later Dana and I were in the car, and [Echo] came on the CD-changer, and I said, ‘Oh no,’ and she said, ‘Listen to this. Really listen to it.’ And we were driving somewhere that was a fairly long drive, and I listened to it, and I really, really liked it," he admitted.
"I went, ‘Damn, you know, this ain’t that bad, is it?’ For some reason, I got in my head that I didn’t like it. But I really did like it that day when I heard it in my car."
Still, even if he can appreciate it now, Petty still sounds an ambivalent note regarding Echo, and not just because some of the songs stemmed from the end of his marriage. The Heartbreakers themselves were on the verge of saying goodbye to one of their own — bassist Howie Epstein, who would succumb to years of addiction struggles in 2003, shortly after being fired from the band.
"There was a lot going on then in my life. Howie was disintegrating before our eyes. That was a big issue. Not the happiest time for the Heartbreakers," Petty told Zollo. "We did a tour behind that record. We did a pretty long tour, for us. That’s what I remember most about it, doing the tour. And the tour went on and on and on. And we played quite a few songs from it. But I was kind of glad to get to another place after Echo. I was kind of glad to get somewhere else. I don’t know why, but I kind of felt like we came back into the sun after that."