When Tom Petty Released His Last Album With the Heartbreakers
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 completely succeeded, as the album arrived in the U.S. on July 29, 2014, with sharp emotion about small things, often via the prism of very large ones, while making sweeping instrumental statements within spacious settings.
Petty was wrestling with the decaying ideals of cooperation and of perseverance and of equality on Hypnotic Eye, but he was also struggling with his own issues – those relating to relevance and to community. There were those who surely must have been wondering if Tom Petty could still make a Tom Petty record, after all that time. He was, of course, a long way from the initial, often raucous successes of his late-'70s output.
Still, as Petty reminded 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 gave little ground in the intervening years. And so, his furious push back on Hypnotic Eye – against injustice, against time – rang true, even as his long-time collaborators in the Heartbreakers rebounded nicely from 2010's detour into bar-band blues on Mojo.
In fact, they arrived fully engaged with "American Dream Plan B," a lithe, growling opener that laid out this timeless message of self-reliance in a society torn apart by greed. And they were 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" outlined their own unkept promises. "Forgotten Man," perhaps this set's best old-school Petty rocker, explored the crippling existences of those left behind – and became even more poignant when this became the final Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album following his sudden death.
That said, as loud as it could sometimes be, Hypnotic Eye also illuminated the craftsmanship Petty and company 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 had moments like "Fault Lines," which unfolded like a musical conversation between old friends – even as the lyrics betrayed the late-middle-aged worry running just beneath that camaraderie. And the darkly intriguing "Shadow People." And "Full Grown Boy," which allowed 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 sounded comfortable, though, much less satisfied. "Red River" updated 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 – found Petty cornered, lashing out: "I ain't afraid of what people say." As such, it's perhaps of little surprise to learn Petty had a sign sitting near the home studio where he recorded Hypnotic Eye that warned visitors: "Beware Cranky Hippie." There's something cathartic still about this project, something inspiring – since, really, that was always the case with Petty.
Even so, Hypnotic Eye wouldn't have been such a complete return to form if all this album did was gnash its teeth. Instead, it also recaptured 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 did indeed make a Tom Petty record, and a terrific one, but without trading relevancy – as so many of his contemporaries seemed to be doing – for nostalgia.
Urgent, committed, viscerally present, Hypnotic Eye was both a reminder and a scrappy update of Tom Petty's greatness.