I'M NOT about to tell you the new Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album is some sort of god-touched 21st-century masterpiece. (This isn't Rolling Stone.) If you're looking for a record that's fresh and modern and inventive, one that looks to the road ahead instead of the rearview mirror, Hypnotic Eye—Petty's 16th studio album, with or without the Heartbreakers—ain't it.
But almost four decades after Petty and the Heartbreakers' sterling debut (and a full 20 years after Wildflowers, which most people these days seem to rank as their favorite Petty album; I don't disagree), the band has made a classic-rock record that I'll happily play all the way through, and many times over. This hasn't happened since 1999's forlorn Echo, the album that charted Petty's divorce with melancholy but moving results.
Hypnotic Eye has been touted as Petty's brashest, rockingest album since 1978's sneering You're Gonna Get It!, but this is a stretch. Like virtually all of Petty's output since 1989's blockbuster Full Moon Fever, this is still mid-tempo dad rock played, with more taste than passion, on very expensive vintage guitars. But glimmers of Petty's economical songwriting genius and the band's instrumental fire peek through in songs like "Red River," a simple but sneaky song that sounds better every time you hear it. And "Forgotten Man" is a red-blooded stomper that's little more than a riff, two or three chords, and some smart-ass lyrics, but played by the veterans in the Heartbreakers, it cracks like a whip.
These signs of life weren't something I expected from Petty, now 63, or the Heartbreakers this late in the game. Petty and I went our separate ways when he put out the grouchy The Last DJ in 2002. It was the first bad album he'd ever made, and he followed it up with 2006's wan Highway Companion and some blues album in 2010 called Mojo that I've never listened to. It was the end of a good run, I assumed—no, an excellent run. Up to that point, there were deep cuts and worthwhile tracks on every Petty album, relative obscurities like "Dogs on the Run," "Insider," "Mystery Man," and "A Mind with a Heart of Its Own." Even the soundtrack album he did for that shitty Edward Burns movie She's the One is pretty solid—the unsentimental, snarling "Grew Up Fast" is one of the best songs ever written about what it's actually like to have a brother.
So yeah, I'll vouch for anything Petty put out before the turn of the millennium: radio staples, album tracks, B-sides, and all. (Have you heard "Trailer"? Holy cow.) Of course, the best summation of Petty and the Heartbreakers remains Greatest Hits, a compilation that ranks as the best single jukebox disc of all time. It's not merely that masterpieces like "Even the Losers," "You Got Lucky," and "American Girl" are all in the same place; it's how consistent the band sounds from start to finish, from 1976's "Breakdown" to that song about dead Kim Basinger. The jittery rawness of "I Need to Know" sits comfortably with the sun-ray wash of acoustic guitars on "Learning to Fly"; even the drum machines and sitar of "Don't Come Around Here No More" don't stick out. If you don't dig something on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Greatest Hits, this whole "music" thing might not be for you.
And here we are with Hypnotic Eye, an album that I didn't know I wanted, from a band I'd sadly said farewell to (at least in the present tense). Okay, it's got some fluff on it; I could do without the jazzy "Full Grown Boy" and the blues trudge of "Burnt Out Town," a holdover from Mojo. But then there's stuff like "Fault Lines," a livewire amalgam of swampy Southern rock, punk-informed efficiency, and blues shredding. And "American Dream Plan B" sounds like a lazy pastiche of classic-rock conventions until that bright, charming chorus flips it on its ear.
Indeed, those subtle left turns and that slight, sharp tweak of the familiar—sometimes the overly familiar—are at the heart of Petty's best songwriting. Before "Free Fallin'" became a cliché, remember how remarkable it was the first 100 times you heard it. First he's celebrating how he's "freeeeee!" Yeah! He's put all the bullshit behind him, cut ties, gone his own way! Then, one line later, he's "free fallin'"—the earth's been ripped out from under him. Whoa, dude.
Hypnotic Eye's pleasures are in its familiarity. While it doesn't contain anything Petty hasn't done better elsewhere, it feels like a homecoming. The album's best cut may even be the slouching, sultry "U Get Me High," a song whose thesis Petty recycled from a throwaway outtake called "You Get Me High" that turned up on the Playback box set. "You Get Me High" was a goof; "U Get Me High" demands to be cranked in the car at the highest volume possible, with all the windows down.
And now Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are coming to Portland for the first time in almost a dozen years (barring a 2006 show in Clark County). A back catalog that includes "Refugee" and "Runnin' Down a Dream" is strong enough to warrant the ticket price, of course. But for once, I bet you won't make a beeline for the beer line when they turn out a new one. Are there any other arena rockers you could say that about?