I needn’t remind you that just over a month ago I let into “American Dream Plan B”, the first single from Hypnotic Eye, the latest from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. I called it churlish and griping, saying in essence that it took all the things the band promised this new album would be — a “real” rock record — and wore it like a plastic Halloween costume. I stand by that statement, and think it was a huge mistake to not just make the song the first single, but to topline the album with it. And why?
Because, as it turns out, Hypnotic Eye might be the best Petty album in a decade, maybe more. Not all the jam band tendencies are gone, and there are affectations that resemble their more recent work, but more often than not the material is identifiable as the Heartbreakers, and in a good way. Wearing ’60s garage rock garb, “Fault Lines” chugs along with a deceptively simple and clever Petty turn-of-phrase. Both “Red River” and “All You Can Carry” reflect earlier glories to an extent, except Petty sings far more cleanly than he did then. Part of that may be age limitations and part of that is casting off some of the Dylanisms that crept into his vocalization early on. Specifically on “Red River”, Mike Campbell does a bit of a fake out with a boomy, half-fandango/half-surf solo in the bridge. The breakdown leads, instead, to one of the greasiest guitar turns he’s done in a long time. Cue the big, stupid smiles for the listeners.
“Forgotten Man” stands as a flag on the mountain of sorts. It stakes out the band’s place in rock and that they, in fact, still can do it. That was a fear coming off of the previous Mojo, which took the jam philosophy perhaps a step too far (at least for the longtimers). Only one song from that album seemed appropriate as a single, being “I Should Have Known It.” Hypnotic Eye suffers, if that is an accurate summation, from having too many choices, with “Forgotten Man” being one of them. You could have worse issues this far into a music career than the “tyranny of choice.”
The overall sound of the disc is good, but a bit dry. I’m assuming that was the point, owing to Petty’s first rumblings that this was to feel like a rough and ready garage rock record. It is not produced by Jeff Lynne, who introduced Petty to that super-dry sound back in the late 1980s. The band co-produced with Lynne associate Ryan Ulyate, so it is still of a piece. The benefit is that the often maligned Steve Ferrone on drums doesn’t sound as programmed and monotonous as percussion often becomes on a Lynne production. You get that arid, sonic density, but not the predictability. Ferrone actually gets to shine a bit with cymbal work on “Fault Lines.”
I’m glad to be wrong. Judging from that first single, I was anticipating a big album of “Here’s your dumb rock songs, Shut up and leave us alone.” Instead, Hypnotic Eye leads one to believe Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are still committed to this thing they started some decades ago. That’s fine, too.