Over the course of their nearly 40-year career, Tom Petty and his eternally reliable compadres, the Heartbreakers, have rarely strayed from their now well-established formula of 4/4 beats, jangly guitar, and radio-ready hooks. But that’s not to say they’ve outrun old age. Petty is now 63, and on Hypnotic Eye, his 13th album with the band, those years manifest themselves in bitterness and cynicism. That certainly doesn’t mean he’s lost the ability to write a catchy, rocking song, but it does put a bit of a damper on an album that’s being billed as a return to the cheery style of the Heartbreakers’ first two albums. Those records surfaced parallel to punk rock in the mid ’70s, just as arena-bloated mainstream rock was disappearing up its own ass; Tom and the boys sounded positively thrilled to be playing catchy little three-minute mid-’60s-style songs about girls—a timeless art that had seemingly been lost some years before.
If there’s anyone capable of convincingly reviving the past, it’s Petty, whose unmistakable nasally warble somehow sounds exactly the same as it did in 1976. Evoking an old-school ’70s LP, Hypnotic Eye’s 11 tracks clock in at a snappy 45 minutes, and other than the awkward dad-style adoption of text language for the title of “U Get Me High,” there’s virtually nothing on the album that suggests the band has spent more than a few minutes listening to any music that’s come out since they released their debut. But not only does Petty no longer have the outlook of a 25-year-old (and why should he?), he seems to have lost the desire to write happy or uptempo songs.
There’s exactly one song here that strikes a perfect balance between orneriness and youthful vigor: The flawlessly constructed opening track, “American Dream Plan B,” which alternates between caustic, growling verses led by a low, gurgling guitar riff and strident, optimistic choruses before ceding to a folksy mandolin adorned break straight off of Full Moon Fever. And like any classic Heartbreakers tune, it highlights the subtle instrumental deftness of Petty’s sidemen: The inimitable Benmont Tench, still one of rock’s great complementary keyboard players, doubles the verse riff with some spooky low-end piano, and guitarist Mike Campbell punctuates the choruses with the same kind of simple-yet-catchy four-note lick that’s always been his bread and butter.
Unfortunately, the buoyancy of those choruses—that bright, all-American sound that we all listen to Tom Petty for in the first place—is pretty much nowhere to be found throughout the remainder of the album. That goes for the music as well as the lyrics, which deal with topics such as mortality, regret, and the fact that people are sometimes assholes. The band’s pronounced crabbiness works most of the time. “Fault Lines,” the album’s only Petty/Campbell co-write, starts off sounding like something Santana would have performed at Woodstock, but Petty’s nervous vocal melody and straightforwardly reflective lyrics (“I got a few of my own fault lines/Running under my life”) give it an unexpected edge. Elsewhere, “Red River” and “All You Can Carry” may be somewhat brooding in comparison to the band’s early work, but they cash in on strong, tough ’70s riffs and indelible hooks.
But by the time the second half of the album rolls around, the near-constant procession of sluggish tempos and downbeat refrains begins to wear. The slinky “Sins of My Youth” is a lifeless attempt at lounge music; “Power Drunk” is a dreary and pointless rehash of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody”; and the lengthy closer “Shadow People” runs its riff into the ground as Petty hurls some mild invective at gun-totin’ Tea Party types (“And this one carries a gun for the U.S.A./He’s a 21st-century man/And he’s scary as hell/’Cause when he’s afraid/He’ll destroy everything he don’t understand”). These missteps aren’t enough to erase the positive impression of Hypnotic Eye’s best moments, but they may cause you to wish that Petty would just lighten up already.