You put together a long, productive career and catalogue and eventually every new release comes down to some variation on your past. Every release is reduced to either “a return to form,” meaning you hit the mark of making something 80% as good as your best album, or a grand disappointment, meaning your new one is about 37% as good as your most mediocre albums. Either way, the upside is that your catalogue is viewed as a monumental, monolithic, immovable whole. And, of course, that’s the downside as well. You are allowed everything but a surprise.
So when I read a preview of the new Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album in Rolling Stone a few months ago and saw it described as a throwback to the sound and energy of the band’s earliest records, I imagined a carefree, joyous, sweaty romp that in my fanboy imagination sounded like “I Need to Know,” “Listen to Her Heart,” or maybe a version of “Route 66” I heard live in 1978 — but only, yeah, not quite as good. I had it all figured it out. It seemed like something I wanted to hear, something I would like, something I would recognize. It would be the breezy, feel-good rock hit of the summer, one that would unite all that I had ever loved about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at any point along the way and place an exclamation point on a long career. A hit! Shine up the Grammy awards!
And when the Talkhouse sent me a list of albums from which to choose for my latest rambling essay (are you still with me?), I zeroed in on Hypnotic Eye by TP and the H’s and said, “This one’s mine.” Hell, I already had the album in my head and knew what I would write and I hadn’t even heard the damn thing yet.
I think I was going to write something about the joys and power of tenacity. About the tortoise beating the hare. About the perils of underrating a musician whose importance has often been discounted because he’s never been cutting edge, provocative, momentarily cool. About how Petty has lived in the shadows of the likes of Dylan and Springsteen in the “serious writer/artist” stakes and quite likely has a better output than either over the last 35 years. And, admittedly, I might be projecting thoughts and self-critiques about my own history when I say that you have to recognize the entire career, the entire arc and the entire context to get the whole picture.
But Hypnotic Eye is not the record I expected. It’s not the return to youth that would bookend a worthy ride from the earliest records. Well, maybe it’s more of a return to youth than ever. There’s something unsettled, sullen, and downright adolescent about Hypnotic Eye, an album that reflects the modern malaise just as much as a distant memory of some kind of restless youth. It’s more shuffling than swaggering.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. The record rocks. The band plays together tightly as an effortless unit in the way that only a band whose nucleus has been together for 40 years can do. There are hooks aplenty. Mike Campbell plays some of the best guitar of his career. Petty’s vocals are great, breezily unaffected and both lived-in and tossed-off in all of the best ways. The production is mostly gimmick-free and timeless. If you play the record in the background while writing emails, watching cat clips on YouTube, drinking an energy drink and doing all of that while driving in city traffic, then you’d think it’s merely a strong, above-average Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers record. More joyous and immediate than, say, an album like Echo (1999) or The Last DJ (2002) or Mojo (2010), which happen to be Petty’s last three outings. And those are all good things.
But I’m a child of the Golden Era of Rock Criticism (let’s say 1973 to 1978) and I know the pitfalls of writing about lyrics at the expense of the overall picture. And yet I’m going to do it anyway. This record is most intriguing because the lyrics are great and unexpectedly broken. And that’s the element that takes Hypnotic Eye beyond a cookie-cutter comeback disc and makes it something worth diving into more closely.
The album has a loose concept, the songs stretching in chronological order from unsettled youth to a midlife panic to ultimate shaky redemption. It begins with “American Dream Plan B,” which boasts the perspective of a cocksure kid with no discernible future vowing, “I’m gonna fight until I get it right” to various characters living on the fringe — figurative and personal fault lines, forgotten men living in burned-out towns, escaping storms coming down the road. About the most upbeat and hopeful line is a profession of love that claims, “I love you more than the sins of my youth.”
It’s certainly not the cocksure kid of “American Girl” or the beaten-down fighter of “Refugee” or even the defiant ne’er-do-well of “Free Fallin’” or “Straight into Darkness.” Just a collection of shadow people living in shadow lands, as described on the last track, an overview and mission statement of sorts. It’s not heroic, it’s not particularly hopeful, there’s no overreaching message of hope or any particular way out. It’s quite deadpan and somehow it’s exciting to see a songwriting elder statesman allow himself to write small, avoid the Big Statement, allow the elliptical confusion that mirrors reality more than art.
Will there be songs on this record that hold up over time, that stand out from the very impressive catalogue that Tom Petty has put together with and without the Heartbreakers? That’s a tough one. “Red River” is fantastic, a haunting song with a lyric equally tender and sinister and blurred in its intention, in the way that the best songs give just a glimpse through a window that shows only a partial view of a tableau that promises so much more. This is the song you’ll take away from earliest listening, but the rest will follow suit, judging by the multiple “spins” that I’ve committed as a conscientious amateur rock critic.
But will you give it that many listens? Will you dig beneath the veneer of “just another Tom Petty album”? Ah, the perils of having made 16 albums over 35 years. (Is that it? Is that really all he’s made?) They all blur together, they’re all easily reduced, embraced, disposed. Even the occasional extremes end up being merely different shades of what happened in the middle, a blip against a mean statement. All I can say is that if you get past the point of easy categorization with this one, you will not be disappointed. It’s deeper than it seems on the surface, on first listen, on easy and glib description. It’s a deceptively difficult record, a good mixture of ambition and reach but also awareness of self. And for a songwriter and band as far into their timeline as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, that’s a recommendation in itself.