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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Album review: Tom Petty’s ‘Hypnotic Eye’ sees all

Paul Collins

“Hypnotic Eye,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers; Reprise Records.


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“Hypnotic Eye,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers; Reprise Records.

In my mind, a fair statement might be that the truest lyrics ever penned by Tom Petty are “the waiting is the hardest part.” For as astounding as it may seem to devotees of this veteran rocker, it has taken him and his band 38 years to see one of their albums reach the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200. I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.

For decades, fans of the legendary Petty have stood poised like ladies in waiting, hoping the Gods of CD Sales would finally elevate the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame band that is as American as baseball and apple pie to that lofty and coveted position.

Perhaps the hallmark of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is found in their decades-long ability to successfully weather through the restless and fickle tastes of pop music audiences and emerge as survivors. With “Hypnotic Eye,” their latest offering on the Reprise label, the long drought is over.

Formed in 1976, over the course of their nearly 40-year career, Petty and his bandmates have enjoyed constant success by being careful to never stray too far away from the well-worn formula of jingle-jangle guitar chords and a steady and pounding underpinning that has kept them constantly on the radio from Maine to California. They are first and always a great live band, for they shine on stage. For those who have seen them in concert, at 63, Petty still has the strong voice and compelling stage presence that leave fans wanting more.

“Hypnotic Eye” is Petty’s 13th studio album with the Heartbreakers, and perhaps their best work since their halcyon days of the 1970s and 1980s. Their groundbreaking self-titled debut album and other smashes like “Damn the Torpedoes” captured the imagination of American youth. With this latest entry, Petty – still belting out songs in that unique and distinctive nasally voice – comes across as more the matured and settled singer-songwriter than the angry young rebel rocker of days gone by.

Overall, this is a collection of 11 lean and mean songs that is hard not to like, if you’re a Petty fan like me. With its hard-edged lead-in, the gritty and grinding rock opener, “American Dream Plan B” – an ode eternal optimism in the face of seeing little or nothing left to believe in – sets the tone and pace of the album. Petty plaintively wails, “My success is anyone’s guess / but like a fool I’m betting on happiness.” The spiky sound and feel of “Forgotten Man” evokes faded images of Petty’s classic, “American Girl,” as he seems to lament the fact that he sees the world having passed him by. Other stand-out tunes from “Hypnotic Eye” include the tender and dreamy “Sins of my Youth” and “Fault Lines,” a rather sobering effort that features an introspective and self-confessing Petty admitting “I got a few of my own fault lines running under my life.”

“Hypnotic Eye” wraps itself up in the hard-hitting classic American rock ’n’ roll feel that has endeared Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to fans across multiple generations. What is his message in this collection of new songs? Well, aside from successfully reinforcing the fact that he is still a most viable and important presence on today’s shifting music scene, what Petty, as a mature songwriter, has captured in “Hypnotic Eye” is what he sees as the fading allure of America and the American Dream in the 21st century.

This album is certainly on a par with all of his past musical triumphs, and as I say, it may be the best work he has done across a long and illustrious career. From the opening chords to its closing, this one is vintage Petty.

So much so, that as I listened to it, that time-worn scene from the movie “Jerry McGuire” came to mind, that featured Tom Cruise roaring down the highway in his car with the radio up loud singing “Free Falling” at the top of his lungs. Across the years, I wonder just how many of us – myself included – have found ourselves giving in to that same impulse Cruise captured so perfectly in that scene.

With “Hypnotic Eye,” Tom Petty proves he remains that uniquely southern musical artist who can hammer out rock music that still brings an audience to its feet, and whose artistic contributions are perhaps more substantial and relevant today than they were so many years ago.

“The waiting is the hardest part,” but for an aging Petty, it has surely been worth it.

Paul Collins is a freelance writer from Southborough, Mass.