There is probably a lot more riding on Hypnotic Eye, the forthcoming album from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, than the band fully understands. Maybe they understand but don’t care. What is fairly certain is that a large segment of their fans bought the previous album, Mojo, on its first day and it has likely stayed in stasis since. The jam-heavy album had but one bona fide rocker on it, being “I Should Have Known It” while the rest drifted non-chalantly on the power of its own mellowness.
I have no problem with growth and change in music. Honestly I don’t, but as I have said on numerous occasions, there has to be a non-hostility to it. You can’t just spring something as all encompassing-ly chilled out – and frankly, boring – as Mojo was and expect people to just be cool with and accept. With that previous album, the fans now had a statement to make to the group: will you rock again? Please?
The answer came in two forms. The first was gently dispersed PR chatter that Mike Campbell really, really, really wanted to rip it up this time. That was good. The second was a cryptic advertisement video wherein Petty slithers around an old stereo, flipping radio channels. Some of the channels have a couple of head-scratcher sounds coming out, but the majority seemed like guitar rock. That was good, too.
This past week, Les Brers Heartbreakers released the first single from the new album, Hypnotic Eye, called “American Dream Plan B.” That’s about it.
I would love to say that the drought had been broken, and in some ways it had, but in most ways this is a harbinger of ill tidings. The crosstalk on the Popdose back channel was distinctly of the “what the hell is this” stripe. Our friends out in the blogosphere confirmed the shared moment of disappointment. Rolling Stone will probably give it 5 stars because they are old, so is the band, and if they won’t defend them against scary youngsters, who will?
So why is it bad? It’s a rock tune, as promised, as hoped for. There are guitars, enough to satisfy Campbell’s request. But what we find is spastic covering for sluggish. It is someone feigning a German accent, then swearing they’re speaking German. This ain’t your father’s Heartbreakers but may be your fathers pretending to be Heartbreakers.
Major sticking points: Petty’s voice. I know, right? Here I am complaining about Petty’s voice, when for 40 years it has been a nasally, grating, sometimes slurring sound. Yet that was the voice that worked. It was an honest sound. It was a bit like Dylan, a bit like McGuinn, but it was Tom Petty in full. In order to get that fullness on “American Dream Plan B,” the burned up and out voice is heavily processed (or run through a megaphone or something…when you figure it out, let me know). Worse than that, Petty’s lyrics to the song come across like somebody’s crotchety grandfather, all complaints in the form of reportage. To paraphrase someone from our little group, “The anti-marijuana people probably have a good case to make now: hear what weed did to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers!”
Others have said that a crucial component still is lacking in the band’s makeup, and that is the absence of Stan Lynch behind the drums. I’ll bite. Steve Ferrone is not Stan Lynch, no matter how you stack them. Ferrone is rightly pegged as a session player, a tasty guy, who has technique and control. He is perfectly capable of playing rock. Once again I point to “I Should Have Known It” and Wildflowers’ “You Wreck Me,” both sounding succinctly Heartbreaker-esque. But Lynch did add a physicality to it. It wasn’t like he was an over-player, but when he struck a drum with his sticks, he threw his whole body into it. When we say, “the band needs Lynch more than Ferrone,” what I think we’re really saying is that the band needs that punch, that ‘thrown against the wall’ drive, and they need it from every player.
One song does not an album make. I submit the entire Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) which took Long After Dark’s tasteful flirtations with new wave rock too far over the line. The band has been imperfect, even in what we might consider some of their more perfect lineups. If “American Dream Plan B” turns out to be simply a bad choice as a first single and the majority of the record surpasses it, so be it, and so much for the better. If, however, it was chosen because it was the most rockingest effort, I fear we’re going to be more than disappointed.
But hey, you can take my opinion with a monster grain of salt. Rolling Stone will say it is like the good old days once again, so what do I know?