The fortunes of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had already gone through several ups and downs by the time Hard Promises, their fourth album, was released in 1981. They had started battling with their record label when their second album You're Gonna Get It was a commercial disappointment, but Petty would develop a reputation for really delivering the goods when his career needed it the most. Boasting a number of quality singles, including and especially the chart-topper "Refugee," the 1979 LP Damn The Torpedoes returned Petty and the Heartbreakers both to the spotlight and to their label's good graces, but extremely strong and deep albums like Damn The Torpedoes and Petty's 1989 solo album Full Moon Fever are more of the exception than the rule in Petty's discography. Still, pretty much all of his albums have contained at least one or two strong singles and a couple of other fine tracks. Such is the case with Hard Promises, the follow-up to Damn The Torpedoes.
Hard Promises opens with one of Petty's trademark songs, "The Waiting," featuring a distinctive opening riff on Petty's electric 12-string guitar. Mike Campbell's wailing lead guitar takes the spotlight on the second song "A Woman In Love (It's Not Me)," another fine single. Most of the remainder of the album is par for the course by Petty's standards, with Petty's nasal Dylanesque vocals, decent melodies, and the Heartbreakers' standard, Byrds-influenced no-frills rock. The exception is excellent ballad "Insider," boasting the backing vocals of Stevie Nicks. Petty and the Heartbreakers also collaborated with Nicks that year on the hit single "Stop Dragging My Heart Around," off Nicks' solo LP Bella Donna.
The biggest criticism you can make about the early Heartbreakers recordings is that the sound does tend to get a bit predictable. What Petty, Campbell, organist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair, and drummer Stan Lynch lacked in variety, however, they made up for with superior musicianship and chemistry, coupled with a strong resolve to stick to the rootsy rock and roll they loved and knew how to play well, even as punk and new wave raged on all around them. This would turn out to be the last album by the original Heartbreakers line-up, as Blair left the band shortly afterwards and was replaced by Howie Epstein. (Blair did return to the band in 2002 during the recording of The Last DJ.) Petty and the Heartbreakers went on to make more albums of comparable quality to Hard Promises through the early to mid 80's. Their popularity slowly but steadily declined through this period, though, before the combination of Petty's involvement with The Traveling Wilburys and the release of Full Moon Fever thrust Petty back into the spotlight in a big way yet again.
Overall Grade: B