Whether you know him from 1979’s classic Damn The Torpedoes or his stint with Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and George Harrison in one of the truest supergroups ever formed (The Traveling Wilburys, for those of you playing at home) – Tom Petty is one of those stalwarts of rock who, despite the best efforts of “the lifestyle”, is still alive and kicking. His recent, sagely appearance in Dave Grohl’s Sound City documentary shows that this is a man who’s seen it all and has some truly wise words to impart. This month, along with his ever-loyal band The Heartbreakers, Petty returns with Hypnotic Eye – his first album in 4 years and sixteenth overall.
From the very beginning, the record bucks and kicks with the energy of a band at least half their age and on opener and lead single American Dream Plan B, a guitar sound so gloriously filthy it would make Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age’s ears prick up. The same goes for the groove which heralds the start of Fault Lines which sounds like a hypercharged What’d I Say by Ray Charles. For all the guitar muscle and deserved rock-royalty bombast however, it’s still Petty’s ever-present gift for melody and harmony that set him apart from the sea of aging rockers proliferating the reunion circuit. The instant hum-ability of Red River reminds you that while a lot of his contemporaries fell to the trappings of the worst parts of the 70’s, Petty managed to preserve the best and has consistently done so for nearly 40 years.
The jazzy overtones of Full Grown Boy are a welcome change of pace and a great display of Petty and The Heartbreakers’ stylistic range before the Californian riff-paradise and salty Hammond organ of All You Can Carry take you right back to the glory days of Sunset Strip all over again. The stomping slow-burner of Power Drunk, much like the majority of Hypnotic Eye definitely relives the band’s glory days by revisiting the sound they established at the start of the way but unlike many other ‘70s dinosaurs still around – Springsteen notwithstanding of course – still sounds vital (if a little weathered) rather than tacky or hollow. This has to be attributed to their long run as accomplished session musicians who had the ambition and control to withstand the ebbs and flows of one of the planet’s most fickle rackets – Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Forgotten Man, with its tremolo intro and Who-esque ballsy tone works incredibly before the ethereal Rhodes, layered ambience and nostalgic musings of Sins Of My Youth reminds you that Petty can still melt your heart just as expertly as he can melt your face. U Get Me High plays with just the right amount of swagger as its title would suggest and penultimate track Burnt Out Town is the kind of trad-blues shuffle that sounds like it came from some swampy, backwater Louisiana village and the record rounds out with the nearly 7-minute Shadow People. It’s a kind of rock so pure that makes you wish you were in your 20’s in 1979 and an absolutely perfect way to close.
For the casual observer, Hypnotic Eye is dangerously close to being thrown on the ever-growing pile of releases by former heroes trying to recapture a youth that’s since been lost. However, Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers are one of those entities that were never “Led Zeppelin big” and as such have spent their career writing classic American rock that has neither burnt out nor faded away.