Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Hypnotic Eye

Former all-American hero sweats the big stuff.

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It’s the eye at the top of the pyramid, the all-seeing figurehead of a hypocritical church, the inescapable, controlling glare of the politician. It’s the Hypnotic Eye of power and suppression keeping us all docile, contained, blind to the Truths. The world really must be going to hell in a hogskin when Tom Petty – narrator of all-American romances and ruinations, poster boy of snake-heeled low-living, the real-life Marlboro Man – goes all Julian Assange on our ass and starts tackling the big issues.

He’s rarely been more political on record than 2002’s attack on music industry greed, The Last DJ, but society’s ills have become so terminal they’ve even poisoned Petty’s country rock idyll and gush in torrents through his thirteenth album with the Heartbreakers.

Paedophilia in the Catholic church. Power-mad one-percenters. Social injustices resulting in gaping wealth divides. An American populace in ruins, the young fighting ever tougher odds to achieve their scaled-back American Dream and the old stockpiling guns and supplies for ‘the war that is coming on Judgement Day’. And Petty, at 63, lost in the middle of it all: ‘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’. His great wide open got a whole lot narrower and it’s as if, having personified a hazy, idealistic Americana since the late 70s, he feels duty-bound to document it turning to ash.

If Petty had been settling into a workmanlike rock’n’roll routine with his on-the-road solo album Highway Companion in 2006 and 2010’s blues-heavy Mojo, the need to speak his mind fully on America’s modern troubles has had a rejuvenating effect. Almost 40 years into one of country rock’s coolest careers, he’s coming out fighting again, promising a “straight hard-rockin’ record, from beginning to end” aligned with his first two releases Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (1976) and You’re Gonna Get It! (1978).

Coming seven years after he reunited his pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch for a hobble down memory lane, Hypnotic Eye initially threatened to be an aging rocker’s belated attempt to reconnect with his youthful new wave bite – his take on Costello’s Brutal Youth, say, or Macca’s New. Instead, it’s a mature and insightful variation. The blues bent of Mojo lingers, but he pours a melodic vigour into these new tales of a sinking society, and more than a little hope.

It opens with American Dream Plan B, in which an optimistic youth, determined to succeed despite shrinking opportunities, stomps on his fuzz pedal in some dank suburban garage, crunches out filthy powerchords and horizon-gazing riffs and declares ‘I got a dream, I’m gonna fight til I get it’. Everything’s still possible, the message goes, it’s just the struggle that got harder. Elsewhere the optimism itches within the grooves themselves: Fault Lines concerns the widening cracks in the protagonist’s fractured psyche but sounds as energised and alive as Petty’s been for decades, while All You Can Carry finds him grabbing what he can and running from a town fire – a metaphor for his country going up in smoke – to the tune of a soaring country chorus rivalling his best this century.

Hearing Petty sing of a shattered America is a bit like watching John Lydon die from a butter-induced heart attack, but he takes care not to scare the mule train so much that it bolts. The political doom-mongering is leavened with familiar tropes – Forgotten Man is a classic Petty portrait of a dislocated soul and Red River that of a woman addicted to voodoo and superstition, surrounded by tiger’s teeth, gris gris sticks and rabbit’s feet. And as the album progresses and the Truths get tougher to swallow, he retreats into comforting musical territories to speak their names. Power Drunk’s disturbing vision of a corrupt leader or megalomaniacal fat cat convinced he can own the world – Petty urges: ‘Pin on a badge and a man begins to change/Starts believing there’s nothing out of his range/You and I are left in the wind/In the wake of a rich man’s sin’ – comes wrapped in sultry, swampy southern tones.

The scorched and ruined Burnt Out Town, where ‘they’re dancing on glass ceilings while the filthy money flows’ and its gun-toting, terrified inhabitants in Shadow People are framed within the sturdy, reliable world of bar-room blues. His attack on Catholicism shielding paedophiles, Playin’ Dumb, is hidden as a digital and vinyl bonus track. And at the centre of it sits Sins Of My Youth, a reflective paean to age that finds Petty relieved that he’s surviving all this turmoil with his integrity intact: ‘You will find no wicked way in me’, he tells a wicked world, ‘I’m worn and wounded, but still the same’. Hypnotic Eye is his evidence; an album true to his roots and his wrecked country, unwavering of vision.

Mark Beaumont

Mark Beaumont is a music journalist with almost three decades' experience writing for publications including Classic Rock, NME, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Times, Uncut and Melody Maker. He has written major biographies on Muse, Jay-Z, The Killers, Kanye West and Bon Iver and his debut novel [6666666666] is available on Kindle.