It’s hard to believe that not only has it been four years since the release of Mojo, Tom Petty’s last studio album with the Heartbreakers, but also an astounding eight years since the release of Petty’s last solo set, Highway Companion. Those long lapses between offerings don’t exactly bode well for Petty’s prolific prowess, but they do suggest that perhaps he and his compatriots are finicky about what they choose to provide. Or maybe, it has to do with the fact they prefer to play it safe.
That second option seems to be the main consideration that went into the band’s latest opus, Hypnotic Eye, an album that emphasizes visceral appeal over the cerebral suggestion the album title might imply. For the most part, the songs hew to the standard formula the group’s adhered to since the beginning – a forthright, forward-leaning approach, ragged vocals supported on occasion by hints of harmony, and a generally dour disposition that precludes any possibility for frivolous distraction. The album’s opening track, the driving and determined “American Dream Plan B,” makes those intentions clear; Petty’s unusually gnarly singing offers more than a hint of intimidation and sinister purpose.
Elsewhere though, it’s more about the groove than the gravitas. A deeply furrowed bass line underscores the restless rhythm of the aptly titled “Faultlines” and its companion piece, the equally appropriate “Shadow People,” while the boogie and bluster of “Burnt Out Town” sounds like a lost long gem from the ZZ Top songbook. More on point, the full throttled, unrelenting pace driving the majority of these tracks – “Forgotten Man” and “All You Can Carry” being but two examples – recalls the frenzy of such Petty standbys as “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and the equally edgy “American Girl.”
Some may lament the fact that Petty and the Heartbreakers don’t vary all that much from their usual template. Indeed, any hint of experimentation was likely purged early on the process. Yet, Hypnotic Eye also affirms the fact they remain an unapologetic rock ‘n’ roll band, a mantra they’ve pursued since the start. Indeed it’s almost reassuring in a way. In a world dominated by unexpected encounters, it’s nice to be able to count on any kind of consistency.
– Lee Zimmerman