So it’s 2014, and the long awaited new album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers finally hits the retail racks. It’s called Hypnotic Eye, and a lot of the early press and promo mentions how the album has its roots in psychedelic rock as played by the garage bands of the mid to late 1960s.
Don’t believe it.
Their previous album, Mojo, was supposed to be the Heartbreakers’ great blues rock tribute album, but after the initial hype, it seemed to fade back right into the swamp, maybe somewhere just south of the great crossroads where supposedly the debbil hangs out and trades musical success for souls. However, as anyone who has ever seen that old Saturday Night Live skit where Will Ferrell as Beelzebubba tries to sell songs to Garth Brook knows, “The devil can’t write no love songs.” Or blues songs. Or Tom Petty songs.
But Tom Petty can write Tom Petty songs, some of which have successfully climbed the charts and some that aren’t necessarily hits but are generally recognised as fine examples of pop craftsmanship. However, the last few album offerings, starting with The Last DJ, progressing through Tom Petty’s solo disc Highway Companion and ending at Mojo showed a process not seen in the early part of Petty’s musical career: It felt like he started with an album concept and filled it with the appropriate songs. In short: Tom Petty is a talented and gifted songwriter — but less successful as a maker of albums.
Still, when he does collect a bunch of great songs together, it often results in a great album. And that’s why Hypnotic Eye succeeds. This is the best collection of songs that Petty and the Heartbreakers have put together in years. Face it: they always play well, but playing uninspiring songs can just sound so… uninspired. But there are very few weak moments on Hypnotic Eye, and the lyrics are back up to Petty’s usual standards. “I saw a ghost by the road tonight,” he sings in “All You Can Carry,” and it has more power than any crossroads imagery on Mojo. “Big River” has as its opening salvo: “She’s got a 3D Jesus in a picture/Got a child she never named.” And in the middle of “Forgotten Man” is buried the line “I feel like a four letter word.” Why has no one ever thought of this line before?
As for the music borrowing from ’60s psych/garage period pieces. That’s maybe the promo hook on which they want to hang this, but much of this album’s production echoes back to some of the less radio friendly numbers found on their first half dozen albums. Even “Burnt Out Town” with its John Lee Hooker style spoken intro has more life than most songs on the previous blues outing.
If you’re buying this album because you like ’60s garage rock, you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you’re buying this because you hope it’s the best thing that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have done in years, you’ll be happy with this collection of tunes written by a veteran songwriter and played by his band that can intuitively hit the music dead on without having to justify its genre.