November 6, 2003

The Repeat Button: Tom Petty

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There are three songs in the entire world that can make me cry. This is one of them (the other two are Nina Simone’s “I Loves You Porgy” and Cat Power’s “I Found A Reason”). On the surface, there’s nothing about this deceptively simple two minute lullaby to make anyone sad. The entire arrangement consists of a picked acoustic guitar and a mandolin played with such delicacy that it sounds like a clavier. There’s something very ancient here, in the orchestration, the melody, and the rhyme scheme, which is elemental ABA. This is perfectly delivered roots music that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Lomax field recording.

But few songs, no matter what their length, carry with them such palpable history. Petty packs an entire lifetime and the story of a relationship into such simple lines as: “I’ve spent my life traveling/ spent my life free/ I could not repay all that you’ve done for me.” Every line in the song, which encompass subjects from the quotidian to the divine, is delivered in the same tender, matter of fact tone. Petty’s voice is leashed to the melody, which is so elemental that you might feel you’ve heard it before. And then, on the single couplet chorus, the chord changes from major to minor and Petty, as he urges sleep, (“So close your eyes/ we’re alright for now”) sings harmony, so flat it’s almost sour. And you realize that the respite is hard earned and that the song describes the calm that comes after a long life, when the affectations of youth have been exchanged for the simple need to keep someone you care about close. The song is an oasis in a harsh world, and around its edges, darkness is very much visible.

All those statements of devotion are sincere, and fervently meant, and don’t really matter at all. They don’t change anything. It’s all right for now. It hasn’t always been, and it won’t always be, and the song’s power to move lies in its acknowledgement of this unhappy fact. This is what it sounds like when you love someone too much to lie to them.

Archived article by Erica Stein