From the beginning, Tom Petty cultivated the persona of radical individualist. Like Brando’s Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, Petty was “born a rebel,” his adversarial target often just the nearest entity that dares suggest he follow the rules. Petty can also come off as a stubborn, reactionary zealot whose public battles with record labels and the industry at large would occasionally seem less rooted in a quest for satisfaction and justice than in an undiagnosed oppositional defiant disorder.
Like your opinionated friend who claims to enjoy “all music except new country and rap” (Petty has your friend’s back on both counts, by the way), Petty often appears ruthlessly dogmatic even when his grievances are justified. Behold: The Last DJ, a quasi-concept album about media consolidation, corporate greed, and the illusion of choice, using the music business as the villainous avatar for all of the above. Buried amidst some of the worst songwriting of his career (try to sit through the sanctimonious “Joe” more than once) are a few truly excellent tunes, like the “London Calling”-quoting title track, the solemn and ambiguous “Blue Sunday,” and the widescreen classicism that is “Have Love Will Travel.” But The Last DJ is neither the galvanizing call to arms it wants to be, nor an album that works especially well out of its own context; it isn’t an album you want to agree with. Worst of all, The Last DJ dispels the myth of its creator as some laidback, joint-rolling hayseed; instead, it’s a rock-record-sized shoulder-chip, and about as rock and roll as any manifesto.