The best moment of Hypnotic Eye is one of its most subdued: track six, “Power Drunk”, about two and a half minutes in. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell has just spun out another set of whisper-wail licks over a Texas blues vamp. Then, a quick snare lead-in; Ron Blair’s dirtied bass begins chugging. Tom Petty and rhythm guitarist Scott Thurston repeat an ascending harmony, to which Campbell responds at the end of each phrase with a single, shivering bend. The second time, Campbell’s note rings long. The rest of the band falls out, and, listening closely, you can hear Petty counting his rests before the bluesy saunter restarts.
That there is a deliberate inclusion, one which conveys the band’s current MO beautifully. Since the early ’80s, Petty and his Heartbreakers have managed to smuggle glittery bits of pop into the heartland aesthetic. It’s the model on which the Heartbreakers have built their success, in a way, and the one which gave albums like Damn the Torpedoes mass appeal and a distinctive sound. The band is from L.A. by way of Florida, mind you — about as far from Springsteen’s Asbury Park as you can get — and some of their biggest hits are rife with drum machines and synthesizers. Throughout his career, Petty has shared writing credits with everyone from the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart to ELO’s Jeff Lynne, and you can hear their radio-friendly influence in many of his songs. But make no mistake: This is merely the upshot of the Heartbreaker’s hip-to-the-times approach to working-class troubles and shout-along choruses. At the end of the day, there still isn’t a better band, past or present, to listen to while doing 75 on a stretch of highway. But, lately, it seems they’ve been growing tired of running down that dream. In a welcome shift, they’re taking their time and turning back to basics.
2010’s Mojo was the first Heartbreakers album on which the band sounded truly young again, cutting tracks full of swaggering rhythm live and largely unedited. Four years later, Hypnotic Eye sounds like the next logical progression; now that the band has rediscovered themselves, they’re making a stand. Petty has mentioned in interviews that the album is a commentary on disillusionment in America. His lyrics reflect that mentality, though not always explicitly. In spelling it out, he nails both frustration with Washington’s helmsmanship as well as the blind optimism the populace adopts as a defense mechanism. “American dream, political scheme/ I’m gonna find out for myself someday,” he sings with determination on “American Dream Plan B”. A few verses later, he’s succumbed to false comfort: “My success is anybody’s guess/ But like a fool, I’m betting on happiness.”
The record’s other facets don’t feel quite as developed, but they sure do bite. The Heartbreakers have imbued their words with most of the power, so they’ve ensured musical continuity by wiping clean any instrumental niceties that don’t make an immediate impression. “Plan B” bops beneath Petty’s vocal growl with a hollow drum kit and a simple, sludgy riff. Equally singular is the bass on “Forgotten Man”, which bounces and grooves its way forward in the mix, anchoring the tremolo of Petty’s power chords. This paring down throws individual members into stark relief — something Mojo was occasionally forced to sacrifice for the sake of fluidity. Their parts aren’t always memorable (Campbell’s licks get less interesting the more he comes out of his shell), and a melody slips past here or there without shaking things up. But it isn’t all crunch and bravado. Hypnotic Eye also sees the band dancing delicately with the jazzy shuffle of “Full Grown Boy” and the bossa nova backbeat and warm vibraphone textures on “Sins of My Youth”. These swinging ballads are the album’s best-written songs, stewing in their own displeasure or devotion rather than boiling over.
Hypnotic Eye is being talked about as a return to the sound of gumshoe Petty as heard on 1976’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It! This is partly true. What keeps any song on Hypnotic Eye from matching “American Girl” or “The Wild One, Forever” is quality of songwriting, which shouldn’t necessarily come as a shocker. Classicism has no hand in it. Petty’s reached a point where he doesn’t need to worry about hits, no doubt a liberating position in which to create. But expectations are also lower, and in spots, it’s noticeable. Petty and his band have delivered a solid, but not wholly exceptional batch of songs propelled by sharp lyrical themes and a clear vision. Ranked alongside the Heartbreakers’ back catalog, their 13th falls somewhere in the middle. As a measuring of the fire inside Petty, however, readings are strong. Listening to Hypnotic Eye, you can rest assured he’s still kicking.
Essential Tracks: “Forgotten Man”, “Sins of My Youth”