The careers of many a classic rock band can be divided into two eras: their prime years – where they made their reputation and issued hit records, and then “everything after.” Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers are somewhat of an anomaly, in that their commercial success and critical acclaim has stretched over decades, pouring out hit albums and singles as the musical landscape continued to evolve around them. And close to 40 years and 12+ albums into their lifespan, they’re still rocking, even if their releases don’t make as much of a splash as they used to. This makes it an unexpected yet ideal time for them to strike with Hypnotic Eye, one of the band’s most solid efforts to date, and their first release the #1 spot on the Billboard album charts, which it did this week.
The thirteenth album by the legendary roots rock band recalls the low down grit and urgency of early LP’s, like their self-titled debut and 1979’s classic Damn the Torpedoes, while still sounding thoroughly modern. Album opener “American Dream Plan B” sets the stage with a rhythmic, fuzzed-out guitar and drum stomp leading to a bluesy solo reminiscent of ‘50s rock pioneers like Chuck Berry. “Fault Lines” follows up that swagger with a contemporary take on a ‘60s garage rock groove while Petty muses about cracks underneath the surface that make it “hard to relax.” Things lighten up with the jazzy “Full Grown Boy” but then the band is right back to business with the catchy, Eric Clapton-esque riff that kicks off “All You Can Carry.” The song “Power Drunk” starts with a bluesy, ZZ Top-lite groove before crashing into the chorus’ brawny riff. “Sins of My Youth” introduces a Latin drum rhythm and dreamy guitars and keyboards to change up the vibe.
There are no complete duds on the album, but there are a few less-than-stellar tracks. “Forgotten Man” and “U Get Me High” sound like outtakes from earlier Heartbreakers albums, and “Burnt Out Town” has a bluesy, Wild West saloon vibe complete with harmonica and twinkling piano that feels like the band just checking off boxes. These songs aren’t bad by any means, but are just not up to par with the rest of the material on the album.
Much is going to be made of whether Tom Petty and the band still have it in them to produce a great album. And the truth is, they do – and they have. Though the songs might not match up to the urgency and radio hit power of tracks like “Refugee” or “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” they are great in their own right and prove that a good, classic guitar-based band that released its first album back in 1976 can continue to rock (and kick ass) in 2014. No wonder it’s a hit.