Earlier this year, Tom Petty started telling interviewers, including HitFix, that “Hypnotic Eye,” out Tuesday (29), would be a rock record that harkened back to the early days of the Heartbreakers. He stayed true to his word.
There’s a rawness to “Eye’s” 11 tracks that captures rock and roll’s primal nature. It’s a blast to listen to and it sure sounds like it was fun to make.
The Heartbreakers, bolstered by guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, are one of the finest, tightest bands in the history of rock. Not only is the musicianship and camaraderie almost unmatched, the Heartbreakers have never remotely felt the need to chase fads or trends. They are straight up, unapologetic rock and roll and on their 13th album as a well-oiled unit, they sound reliably cohesive.
Not only does the album herald back to old Heartbreakers, it recalls the ‘60s and ‘70s rock that has so informed Petty’s music: the jangly guitars and harmonies of “Red River” are redolent of The Byrds, while rollicking “Fault Lines” begins with a Doors/“Break On Through” urgency and first single, “U Get Me High, starts with a Rolling Stones woozy swagger.
Opening track, driving “American Dream Plan B,” sets the tone for the album. Petty, singing in a pinched monotone (even more so than normal), vows to fight for his dream until he gets it right, even if in 2014 that dream is woefully out of reach. Blending acoustic and electric guitars, the song is a strong salvo that sets up the disillusionment that runs through many of the other tunes. That flip side of “American Dream Plan B” is the Allman Bros.-like “Forgotten Man,” where the protagonist knows he’s in a losing battle. That alienation grows en masse on album closer, "Shadow People."
At 63, Petty has lost none of his edginess. If anything, he’s got more to rail against—he just picks his battles a little more judiciously.
While the songs are all primarily mid-to-uptempo rock tunes, Petty sprinkles other touches throughout: he adds a slight samba feel to “Sins of My Youth” that helps take the sting out of such lyrics as “You said you loved me, wish you’d like me more.” Bluesy horns and Tench’s juke-joint piano playing give “Burnt Out Town” a swampy feel. To be sure, we’ve never heard anything musically from Petty like the lighthearted, soft-shoe feel of “Full Grown Boy”on a Heartbreakers’ record (though the love tune wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Traveling Wilburys set.)
There’s a loose aggressiveness to the album that never veers into sloppiness, instead it’s the feel of a well-oiled machine: all the parts know how to work together, especially when they stretch out on the pleasing Campbell-led jam on “All You Can Carry”— a song literally about Petty grabbing what he could as his house burned down and figuratively about the baggage we need to leave behind.
“Hypnotic Eye,” recorded in Petty’s Malibu home studio, is solid and sturdy if hardly groundbreaking. As enjoyable as it is— and and it is very enjoyable— there’s nothing on here that sounds like it could become a new classic, along such staples as “I Won’t Back Down,” “American Girl” or “Don’t Do Me Like That.” However, it’s also clear that Petty is far from coasting, especially when his “Hypnotic Eye” sees all and has so much to say.