Music has become so compartmentalized over the past decade that bands that just play rock and roll seem quaint, or they disappear in the post-synth-avant-psych-gaze haze. Of course, Tom Petty doesn’t have to worry about these things; he probably doesn’t know what the hell any of it means. When Petty and his Heartbreakers assembled in the studio back in 2011, all they knew was they wanted to make—as he put it—“a straight, hard-rockin’ record from beginning to end.”
That’s exactly what they do on Hypnotic Eye—it’s rock and roll, nothing more, nothing less. And as you’d expect, on their 13th album the Heartbreakers rock expertly, but also loosely and loudly. The real beauty of this collection, however, is that nothing sounds forced. Petty and Co. followed the fires in their bellies and ended up in the belly of the rock and roll beast. The burly riff of opener “American Dream Plan B” sets the tone, both musically and lyrically. Songs like “Red River” and “U Get Me High” jump through the speakers—walking bass lines, chiseled guitar work from Mike Campbell and humming keyboards—with choruses that are familiar and cozy. The band exercises their blues chops on “Burnt Out Town” and hit on a little Django jangle on “Full Grown Boy.” The Heartbreakers are well-oiled and lean throughout.
There’s plenty of social commentary sprinkled among these muscular songs. And while song titles like “Power Drunk” and “American Dream Plan B” sound a little heavy-handed, Petty is still subtle and artful with his observations of America, 2014. “Well, my baby, no doubt, dreams further out, makin’ moves to get us away some day,” he sings on “American Dream Plan B,” couching current realities in colorful snapshots.
Petty’s real strength comes through in Hypnotic Eye’s production. He avoids the trappings so many artists of his generation fall into of getting too slick. It’s not lo-fi by any means—that would sound silly—but there is a warm grittiness that keeps the songs from becoming stale. The record is fussed-over, without sounding fussed-over.
Petty has proven he can make good records without the Heartbreakers, as he did in 1989 on Full Moon Fever and 1994’s Wildflowers (which is set to be reissued this year), but there’s something magical when this group gets together. Almost 40 years on, Tom Petty has been kind to his mind and his voice. And the Heartbreakers have been kind to Petty. Hypnotic Eye is all the proof you need.