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Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, ‘Hypnotic Eye’ – Album Review

For Tom Petty, the challenges on ‘Hypnotic Eye‘ were many: To put out an album that reclaimed his rock edge, without resorting to lo-fi hipsterisms. To deal with this world’s broader betrayals, while keeping his message firmly rooted in personal stories. To simultaneously decry the always-on but unseeing eye of technology, while finding a way to connect with a generation absorbed in its buzzy glow. To sound, at once, both smartly cantankerous but musically open.

He’s completely succeeded here, as the album talks with sharp emotion about small things, often via the prism of very large ones, while making sweeping instrumental statements within spacious settings.

Petty is wrestling with the decaying ideals of cooperation and of perseverance and of equality on ‘Hypnotic Eye,’ but he’s also struggling with his own issues — those relating to relevance and to community. There are those who surely must be wondering if Tom Petty can still make a Tom Petty record, after all this time. He is, of course, a long way from the initial, often raucous successes of his late-’70s output.

Still, as Petty reminds us on the riff-driven ‘All You Can Carry,’ “No one can say I didn’t have your side / No one can say I left without a fight.” From battling album price increases in the ’80s to handing out free downloads to fans at concerts in the 2000s, Petty has given little ground in the intervening years. And so, his furious push back on ‘Hypnotic Eye’ — against injustice, against time — rings true, even as his long-time collaborators in the Heartbreakers rebound nicely from 2010′s detour in bar-band blues on ‘Mojo.’

In fact, they arrive fully engaged with ‘American Dream Plan B,’ a lithe, growling opener that lays out this timeless message of self-reliance in a society torn apart by greed. And they’re just getting started. The grungy, on-point ‘Power Drunk,’ the Bob Dylan-meets-Randy Newman diatribe ‘Burnt Out Town’ and the religious critique ‘Playing Dumb‘ outline their own unkept promises. ‘Forgotten Man,’ perhaps this set’s best old-school Petty rocker, explores the crippling existences of those left behind.

That said, as loud as it can sometimes be, ‘Hypnotic Eye’ also illuminates the craftsmanship Petty and company have developed along the way — from Mike Campbell‘s perfectly attenuated guitar asides to Ron Blair’s melodic accents to Steve Ferrone’s heartbeat cadences. And so we have moments like ‘Fault Lines,’ which unfolds like a musical conversation between old friends — even as the lyrics betray the late-middle-aged worry running just beneath that camaraderie. And the darkly intriguing ‘Shadow People.’ And ‘Full Grown Boy,’ which allows ace-in-the-hole Benmont Tench the opportunity to stretch out over a jazz-inflected shuffle. And ‘Sins of My Youth,’ with its delightful Latin tinge.

Petty never sounds comfortable, though, much less satisfied. ‘Red River’ updates the Heartbreakers’ latent Byrds influences with a nasty attitude. Even ‘U Get Me High‘ — a song that on its surface might seem like a sun-flecked paean to love — finds Petty cornered, lashing out: “I ain’t afraid of what people say.” As such, it’s perhaps of little surprise to learn Petty has a sign sitting near the home studio where he recorded ‘Hypnotic Eye’ that warns visitors: “Beware Cranky Hippie.” There’s something cathartic about this project, something inspiring — since, really, that’s always been the case with Petty.

Even so, ‘Hypnotic Eye’ wouldn’t be such a complete return to form if all this album did was gnash its teeth. Instead, it also recaptures the Heartbreakers’ elemental sense of proportion, returning to and expanding upon their now-familiar brand of heartfelt, heartland rock — while keeping just enough of the brash looseness of ‘Mojo.’ In short, he has indeed made a Tom Petty record, and a terrific one, but without trading relevancy — as so many of his contemporaries seem to do nowadays — for nostalgia.

Urgent, committed, viscerally present, ‘Hypnotic Eye’ is both a reminder and a scrappy update of Petty’s greatness.

Next: Top 10 Tom Petty Songs

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