Tom Petty reaches back and turns the Heartbreakers loose on ‘Hypnotic Eye’
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
One of the gems hidden within the six discs of Tom Petty’s Playback box set retrospective was a cover of the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction,” a dirty 1960s nugget that inspired one of the greater essays of Lester Bangs’ career. It’s a live cover and a throwaway, but it was telling that of all the random tributes, Petty chose that when summing up his career to that point.
On top of the blues and British influences apparent in Petty’s earliest music, the scuzzy rock that came out of garages in America made an indelible impression on the Heartbreakers. Throughout their best records, even if it wasn’t apparent in the sound, the spirit of those songs — testaments to rock and roll as a release as much as anything else — was often present.
So for Hypnotic Eye, Petty’s thirteenth album with the Heartbreakers, what was often winked at before is outright assaulted on the record’s opening track and first single, “American Dream Plan B,” a filthy little number that sounds like it came out of Petty’s basement 35 years ago. If it’s a conspicuous move and even if it’s a little heavy handed, it’s a song that swings like a punk forerunner while maintaining Petty’s natural bent as a songwriter and musician.
From the opening track, the fuzz settles down back into a distorted jangle, and what follows is the clearest representation of the Heartbreakers as a great American rock band since 1999’s Echo. Free of narrative devices and extended genre exercises, the Heartbreakers are given the room to interpret and energize Petty’s songs. The fact that it’s another strong songwriting set just lifts things from there.
It’s only been a couple of records, but it’s been eight years since Petty’s talents as a craftsman have been on display as they are here. Even with its raunchy backing, “American Dream Plan B” is at its core a catchy rock and roll number that could have fit on any of the first few Heartbreakers albums. But he doesn’t just stay with his distant past; “Red River” would’ve sounded right at home on his solo Highway Companion circa 2006, while “U Get Me High” even includes a lyrical callback to the 1994 Wildflowers track “Don’t Fade on Me.”
The difference from his solo outings, again, are the Heartbreakers. Bassist Ron Blair and drummer Steve Ferrone are tight, swinging and always in the groove, especially on “All You Can Carry,” where Blair’s inventive lines rumble just below the rest of the blast. In addition to the colors he adds to nearly every song here, pianist Benmont Tench gets to show off his boogie chops on “Burnt Out Town.”
Scott Thurston was the breakout star on 2010’s blues-infused Mojo, really bending his blues harp rather than just blowing out a pleasant harmonica melody. And while Petty mostly left the blues songs aside on this album, save for the jazzy “Full Grown Boy,” it’s Thurston again taking a biting lead on the harp on “Fault Lines” and giving the band a new weapon.
Of course, Campbell is the most present, the one Heartbreaker to virtually never leave Petty’s side throughout all his projects. His leads and clever fills are dotted throughout the album, and his punctuation on “Power Drunk,” from full-bodied runs to fuzzed-out riffs, help give the song a restless energy that sounds like it was made for the stage. And the entire band pulls together to turn the closing “Shadow People” into a dark, burning finale, from Campbell’s riffs to Tench’s organ percolating within the groove.
That continuity runs through the entire album. Petty has written 11 strong songs here that all hang with each other, and they would’ve sounded good no matter who was playing on them. But the live atmosphere of the Heartbreakers captures a different spirit than just a slick studio rendering. It recalls the garage heroes of 40 years ago, for sure, but it also captures the band’s own youthful spirit. It sounds like a throwback because it practically is.
But above all, Hypnotic Eye is a recollection of the unique power of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers themselves. They’ve been interpreters and songsmiths and session musicians, but above all, they’ve been a great rock and roll band, one that made a career on taking all these influences and twisting them until they became one great offshoot of the rock and roll tradition themselves. They’re still a great band, and they can still turn it up and turn it loose.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org