Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Hypnotic Eye” (Reprise/Warner Bros.) Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers have been one of the most dynamic and consistently exciting live bands of the past four decades of American rock. So it’s not exactly surprising that “Hypnotic Eye,” Petty and the band’s first album in four years, capitalizes on the ensemble’s in-concert prowess by exploiting a live-off-the-studio-floor feel.
What is perhaps a bit surprising is the fact that Petty, now 63, has written a batch of songs that number among his finest, and handed them over to a Heartbreakers clearly loaded for bear. “Hypnotic Eye” is tough and rough and scrappy and hard-rocking, when it isn’t being psychedelic and folk-jazzy. The Heartbreakers sound so self-assured, so comfortable in their respective roles as contributors to the greater good, that it takes several listens to unearth the substantial ear-candy lurking in the grooves. But oh man, is it ever there,
Guitarist Mike Campbell is the obvious instrumental star of the show – his keening tone, achingly controlled vibrato, and ability to infuse blues-based playing with an exotic flavor are matched only by his subtlety. Whether updating the classic Byrds-based jangle of the Heartbreakers’ early days during “All You Can Carry,” crawling through the Louisiana swamp for the gorgeously filthy “Red River,” summoning snarling fuzz tones during “Power Drunk,” or adding melodic poignancy to the jazzy “Full Grown Boy,” Campbell is simply unerring In his ability to give Petty’s songs exactly what they need to fully flourish.
It’s the rest of the guys (bassist Ron Blair, keyboardist Benmont Tench, multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston, drummer Steve Ferrone) who give the machine its forward momentum, though – the Heartbreakers purr like a perfectly tuned engine on every one of “Hypnotic Eye’s” tracks, regardless of the diverse nature of the tunes themselves.
Petty, still in remarkably fine voice, has only sharpened his songwriter’s focus with the passing of time. He does the stark, dark confessional narrative better than just about anyone – see the knee-trembler “Sins of My Youth” and the deceptively jubilant stroll masking the dark, world-weary, but resilient “Full Grown Boy” for proof. He is also masterful at unearthing the dark heart of the American character without bashing the listener over the head with vitriolic broadsides. “Power Drunk,” “American Dream Plan B,” “Forgotten Man” and the album-closing epic “Shadow People” – these are tunes that expertly poke around in the slimy soil of the “other” America, the one where hatred, fear and ignorance intermingle drunkenly around a backwoods bonfire. These songs are unflinching to the point of being frightening.
“Hypnotic Eye” shares the news, and the news ain’t good. But the Heartbreakers beat back the darkness with a raucous fury, not so much whistling past the graveyard as setting up all their gear within the cemetery gates and hosting a jam to end all jams. There’s something palpably life-affirming in their insistence on doing so.
Age? That’s just a number. Real rock ‘n’ roll endures. ∆∆∆∆ (Jeff Miers)