In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed country-pop songstress Taylor Swift defended the music industry’s declining sales by stating, “In my opinion, the value of an album is, and will continue to be, based on the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace.”
While Swift’s argument is heavily weighted toward the labels, one artist much more seasoned than her has spent a career railing against the machinations of the industry — all the while ruling album charts and radio play. Nearly 40 years in, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are beyond the point of needing to give a shit. Yet the amount of heart and soul on their latest album, Hypnotic Eye, is clear.
The consummate rock ‘n’ roll rebel, Petty once declared bankruptcy to be released from a recording contract. Later he fought his own label over a planned price increase for 1981’s Hard Promises. Such greed informed the vitriol of 2002’s The Last DJ. Understanding the state of the industry and its paradigm shifts, Petty began giving away free downloads of 2010’s Mojo to concertgoers. As Petty sings on Hypnotic Eye‘s riff-heavy “All You Can Carry”, “No one can say I didn’t have your side / No one can say I left without a fight.”
Such fight is evident on the snarling opener, “American Dream Plan B”. An underdog anthem for these times when dreams are no longer deferred but destroyed, Petty’s bootstrap mentality of self reliance is refreshing: “I see what I want / I go after it.” Indictments of moral decay and deception are interspersed throughout Hypnotic Eye on songs like “Power Drunk” and the barroom piano roll of “Burnt Out Town”. The paranoid closer “Shadow People” details the divided nature of modern America, with Petty putting forth the notion that society’s ills are perhaps beyond repair: “Well 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.”
The virtuosity of guitarist Mike Campbell is duly on display. His drippy riffs on “Power Drunk” and solos on the soul-baring “Red River” and new staple “You Get Me High” are du rigueur at this juncture, but never feel forced or overdrawn. Keyboardist Benmont Tench’s jazz slink ambles the lamenting “Full Grown Boy” along, marking his most noticeable contribution on the album. For all their name recognition, Cambell and Tench play second chair to the unsung heroes of Hypnotic Eye: bassist Ron Blair and drummer Steve Ferrone. The rhythm duo provide the bouncing groove of “Forgotten Man” and Blair’s bass anchors the driving “Faultlines” with Ferrone all but pummeling his ride cymbal.
A modern throwback, Hypnotic Eye recalls the band’s early Shelter Records releases. After the heavy-handed blues of Mojo, Hypnotic Eye is unabashed rock ‘n’ roll. The charging “Forgotten Man” is classic Petty. Even with its sense of purpose made clear, there is no urgency on the part of the Heartbreakers. Unhurried playing on the organic jam “Faultlines” and the Spanish-inflected meditation “Sins of My Youth” highlight the cohesiveness of the band.
In her article Swift notes, “I think forming a bond with fans in the future will come in the form of constantly providing them with the element of surprise.” While peers of his era trot out on anniversary and co-headlining tours without having released a new album in years or even decades, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers remain vital, continuing to surprise by releasing high value music that is timely and timeless. In this age of diminishing returns and genre stagnation, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have provided a blistering reminder of rock ‘n’ roll’s subversive nature with Hypnotic Eye.