Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: Tom Petty still has something to say on 'Hypnotic Eye'

Critic's Pick

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Hypnotic Eye

As part of a rapidly vanishing breed of rock elders, Tom Petty makes news every four or five years merely by releasing another album. For fans, such news is an affirmation. It means one of the essential voices of the 1970s and '80s is still with us, even though such acknowledgement is rooted largely in music made during younger, hungrier years. But for anyone whose appreciation of Petty extends beyond the half-dozen hits that remain staples of classic rock radio, the demands placed on records like the new Hypnotic Eye are significantly greater. They want more than assurance that Petty is still around. They want to know if he and his music are still vital.

Luckily, Petty remains a rocker of purpose on Hypnotic Eye. It's far from the return to his pre-Damn the Torpedos roots that many initial reviews have suggested (At 63? Seriously?), the elements are generously on display that paved the way for Petty's career ascension: namely, a collection of keenly crafted songs that seldom stray from rock and pop essentials, a narrative and performance attitude that balances reflection with discontent, and a sidekick in longtime guitarist and co-producer Mike Campbell who still values the efficiently emotive power of a great riff.

The album takes its title from a loose theme of attention-grabbing philosophy and practices that run through its 11 tunes. Petty doesn't play that notion as heavily as he did a decade ago on the well-intentioned but over-reaching The Last DJ. Instead, the new record focuses on story lines as socially driven, as in the album-opening American Dream Plan B ("I got a dream; I'm gonna fight till I get it ... right") as they are personally confessional, as in the closing Shadow People ("I ain't on the left and I ain't on the right; I ain't even sure I got a dog in this fight").

Such a theme essentially is bait for music that the Heartbreakers whip up. Unlike 2010's Mojo, an enjoyable but decidedly laid-back record, Hypnotic Eye lets Campbell loose. Yet it's not the capable soloing that distinguishes his contributions, but his glossary of infectious hooks and riffs — from the steamrolling melody that runs through the apocalyptic All You Can Carry to the deep Bo Diddley groove that ignites the misanthropic Forgotten Man — that underscores the sharp electric jabs that most of these new songs become.

Best of all, there is a new Petty classic here. On Red River, Petty and Campbell deliver it all: riffs by the earful, a wild story line (religious reclamation in the face of extremism), an impassioned vocal performance, an ultra-cool Spanish guitar interlude and a chorus you'll be humming for days. That's where Hypnotic Eye hits the bull's-eye.

Walter Tunis, Contributing Music Critic