The company line on Hypnotic Eye, Tom Petty's 13th studio album with the Heartbreakers is that it marks a return to the band's rock & roll roots ("a straight hard-rockin' record, from beginning to end" is how Petty himself described it). Four songs in, the jazzy "Full Grown Boy" makes it clear that the reality of Hypnotic Eye isn't quite so straightforward.
Petty is a no-BS curmudgeon on his better days, and he is rarely in a joyful mood here: first single "American Dream Plan B" finds him snarling against lowered expectations ("I got a dream, I'm gonna fight 'til I get it right"); he gets even more pointedly political — if not partisan — by taking to task shady political figures on the bluesy "Burnt Out Town" ("New emperor, same clothes") and epic closer "Shadow People" ("And this one carries a gun for the U.S.A./He's a 21st-century man"), on which Benmont Tench's menacing keyboard sounds harken back to Damn the Torpedoes. Four decades into his career, Petty may not have an "American Girl," a "Refugee" or even a "Walls (Circus)" in him, but that doesn't mean he can no longer come up with another "The Wild One, Forever" in the warm, tender "Sins from My Youth," which finds him embracing his own aging ("All those things that were hidden away/ Ain't so bad in the light of day").
If the songwriting drags in spots ("Red River" has the album's best chorus, but also predicable nods to a "Gypsy town" and a "spirit queen"), Hypnotic Eye truly shines as a showcase for the Heartbreakers' unparalleled, almost telepathic interplay. While guitarist Mike Campbell is the album's MVP, peppering each song with a variety of gnarly riffs and textured, surging solos, alternately evoking Peter Green on "Faultlines" and Billy Gibbons circa Degüello on "Power Drunk" and pulling out all the stops on the layered "All That You Can Carry," the other Heartbreakers are not to be outdone: check out Ron Blair's thick, melodic bass lines on "Faultlines" and "U Get Me High," Tench's tasteful licks on "Burnt Out Town" or Scott Thurston's acoustic fills on "Forgotten Man" as evidence.
Hypnotic Eye may just be a solid middle-of-the-pack release as far as Petty albums go, but only a fool would complain about having another 45 minutes of music from one of rock & roll's premier units. (Reprise)