Monday, August 18, 2014

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye (2014)

The new album by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Hypnotic Eye, is getting a lot of good press (and for good reason, it turns out). Even Entertainment Weekly is singing its praises, and as a person who is mostly a fan of non-contemporary music, I usually find EW's music coverage to be largely irrelevant to my tastes. Among the things I've read about Hypnotic Eye is the claim that it is a quality Heartbreakers record in the classic style. And so that was my mindset going into it on first listen.

It's not often that a decades-old band puts out a record to rival their youthful output. Obviously, this is probably the goal of a lot of bands on a lot of records (whether they're trying to recapture old lightning, or outshine it with a new sound), but it's not easy to accomplish. Take The Rolling Stones, for example, who have released a lot of iffy records since their heyday in the '60s, and '70s. In 2005, with A Bigger Bang, they finally put out a solid record worth perking your ears up and listening to. At the same time, it doesn't so much sound like a new classic Rolling Stones album, as it sounds like The Rolling Stones in the 21st century recording some good music that doesn't embarrass their monumental legacy.

On the other hand, take Black Sabbath's album from last year, ingeniously titled 13. Nobody would have faulted you for doubting that Black Sabbath was a band that could put out a record that effectively captured the sound on their classic albums (well, I wouldn't have, at least). But to my surprise, that's exactly what they accomplished with 13, which to me is every bit as good as their self-titled debut, or Paranoid, or Master of Reality, or what have you - and maybe even better as a matured, consistent product.

So where on the spectrum does Hypnotic Eye lie? When I first started listening to it - skeptic that I am - I was doubtful that it could be as good as people were saying. As the first couple songs played through, I caught myself thinking, it's good, but can it really compare to a classic Heartbreakers record? But, lo and behold, by the time I got to the end of the album, I found myself digging the songs enough to put it back on from the top. I ended up listening to it three times in a row before I had to get up and do something else, and at that point, I was convinced that I liked the record enough that I wanted to buy my own copy of it.

Truth be told, and as cynical as this is going to sound, I didn't think Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers had another album of this quality in them still. They put out a good album in 2010 (titled Mojo), but if I were to be honest, I think I like Hypnotic Eye even more. Mojo was more akin to The Rolling Stones' A Bigger Bang, in that it sounded like a modern Heartbreakers recording good music that didn't embarrass their legacy. It's also a longer album, in the modern format. Hypnotic Eye is a short 45 minutes, like albums of the old days, but it's a lot tighter as a result, with hardly any filler. I like an album that doesn't take the risk of overstaying its welcome. If it's that good, you can always put it on repeat, but if there's too much filler, you're bound to start reaching for the skip button.

And the quality of the music is fantastic. Like Black Sabbath's 13, I think it's as good as any Heartbreakers album I've listened to, including their self-titled debut and Damn The Torpedoes (both from the '70s). And in spite of my strong personal connection to the band's 2002 release The Last DJ, which was probably responsible for me finally taking Tom Petty seriously as an artist and not just a musician who put out some good radio hits, I think that, on a purely musical scale, I like Hypnotic Eye even better.

The Songs

The album opens with American Dream Plan B, which is very clever and gets you thinking - even before the song starts playing! It starts off in a lo-fi sort of way that may be a little off-putting at first - I'll admit it had me scratching my head the first time I listened to it. But it clears up quickly, and on repeated listens I think it's actually a really neat effect. It's a solid song that includes a crunchy guitar solo, which is typical of the album on the whole - and something that I, as a guitarist, absolutely appreciate, and also something, I think, that ties it in to the old classic Heartbreakers songs, written and recorded in the days before people forgot how important a good guitar solo was in a rock song.

The next song, Fault Lines, is a little bit more traditionally pop-Petty, but it's saved by a very rough-around-the-edges guitar part. I really can't over-emphasize the importance of guitar tone and playing to the quality of a song. I may be biased as a guitarist, but in a more general sense, the sound of the instruments on this album contribute in no small part to how good the songs on this album are.

Red River opens up sounding an awful lot like something you might hear on Mojo (which is no criticism), and sports a chorus that is very classic Petty-sounding. It's no obscure secret why people are calling this an album in the classic Heartbreakers vein. It's got a nice instrumental bridge that starts off sounding very pretty, but only for so long until the screaming electric guitar charges in.

The sound of Full Grown Boy is very distinctive, with a unique guitar tone that makes me think of something like Pink Floyd's Biding My Time, or The Doors' Cars Hiss By My Window, or something else esoteric like that. It's very difficult to find a clean guitar tone that's tasty and not too tinny, but the band nails it on this track. The song's a bit laidback, but it's got a nice swing and a groove to it.

To be fair, a Tom Petty album should really probably be evaluated for its lyrics among everything else, and there are glimpses here and there that tell me that the lyrics on this album have some depth (take the title of the opening track, for example), but as anyone who knows me knows, I listen to instrumental music first and foremost, and tend to view the vocals in a song more as a musical instrument and not for the words that are being sung. That having been said, the fact that I like this album so much is a testament to its instrumental achievement.

All You Can Carry is a much more upbeat track, with a far more liberal spattering of guitar leads. A lot of my favorite Tom Petty songs are of the guitar-heavy sort - tracks like Refugee, Runnin' Down A Dream, Mary Jane's Last Dance, and, even more recently, Good Enough. This song fits snugly in that category.

Power Drunk slows down a bit, but maintains an emotional intensity. It's one of those songs where Petty's voice has an edge to it, which is also reflected in one of the guitar tracks. It's also another song that has a bit of a Mojo feel to it, which leads me to suspect that this album is actually a pretty good bridge between Petty's classic and modern sounds, almost in the sense of it being a perfect distillation of the musician (and, absolutely, the band)'s talent and potential. Power Drunk is also one of the songs on the album that leaves an early impression on you. You know how some songs just stick out in your mind right away, and others take some time for you to really notice them (popularly known as "deep cuts")? This is the former.

Forgotten Man seems to sit firmly in the Bo Diddley camp of rock beats, but is just another example of how the excellent sound on this album contributes to its overall feel. It's almost as if it doesn't matter which song on the album you're listening to, because each one has a bit of each of the parts that makes the album overall so good. I wonder who's responsible for that cohesion of aural landscapes; I suspect it has as much to do with the production of the album than the musicians' individual approaches. Whoever is responsible, they deserve major kudos.

Sins Of My Youth is another one of those songs that leaves an impression, maybe as much due to the catchy chorus as anything else. It's a mellow, moody track though, with another appearance of that very smooth guitar tone, like we heard on Full Grown Boy. I absolutely love it.

I suspect that U Get Me High may be an attempt at reaching out to a younger generation of fans (although I probably only say that because of the choice of spelling "you" with a single letter). Not that the song is in any way out of character for Tom Petty - I think that You Don't Know How It Feels, with the infamous line "let's roll another joint" is one of his enduring hits, both in concert and on the radio, even if, to me, it's not one of his most musically interesting songs. In any case, this song, like everything else on the album (not to sound like a broken record), has a good sound to it, with a nice guitar part, that almost (if not quite) reaches Runnin' Down A Dream levels at the very end.

Burnt Out Town is the song on Hypnotic Eye with the most direct blues influence in its sound, including a great harmonica part. I also noticed in the liner notes that Tom Petty takes the guitar lead in this song, although it's not very extensive. He employs Mike Campbell for good reason, but a little variety is always fun. The focal point of this song definitely seems to be on the lyrics, as it is very much a story-telling kind of song (and if I'm saying that, you can probably believe it).

The album closes with Shadow People, which might not be all that assuming at the start, but as it develops over the 6+ minutes of its length (being the longest song on the album), it eventually proves itself to be probably the best song on the album. The lyrics, again, are evocative, with much to say, it would seem. And the outro that finishes the song (and the album) faintly recalls in my mind the close to that other Heartbreakers album I love so much, The Last DJ, with its reference to the shining sun.

Hypnotic Eye manages to do what every great album in the annals of rock history does: become something more than the sum of its parts. You could talk about the songs, but in the end, there's just something about the album that sounds groovy from start to finish, and somehow it makes you want to put it on in the car and turn the volume up. And then, when it's over, play it again. What more could you ask for from a rock album?