Tom Petty & his Heartbreakers turn an eye to fading American dreams.
By Andrew Tanner
By rights, he should have a major US interstate highway named after him by now. After all, Tom Petty has surely penned enough road-trip worthy anthems over his 4 decade career to merit that honour. Even some of my fiercely ‘indier-than-thou’ mates will admit to their secret love of the Petty back catalogue. Perhaps it’s the fact that despite being a heartland rocker, he’s never relinquished his more interesting idiosyncrasies – a sometimes darkly cynical sense of humour, a keen appreciation of pop melodicism, and that laconic deep South drawl Petty famously celebrated on 1985’s ‘Southern Accents’. Unabashed fan or no, there are few who’d deny the Heartbreakers their place as one of the great American guitar bands of the rock’n’roll era.
The new album Hypnotic Eye doesn’t depart that successful blueprint radically. It’s a brace of 11 guitar driven songs spirited enough to get you rocking down Route 66. Lyrically though it’s a different kind of vehicle. Hypnotic Eye’s relentlessly sombre themes would have you musing on what modern times have wrought on the working class communities you pass by.
Lead off track and first single ‘American Dream Plan B’ sets the tone, kicking in with a super fuzzed three chord riff, rattling snare and Petty’s world weary vocal ‘got a dream, gonna fight ‘til I get it’. This is no triumphant ‘Running Down a Dream’ rewrite though – by song’s end he throws off a resigned ‘my success is anyone’s guess, but like a fool I’m betting on happiness’.
It’s followed by ‘Fault Lines’, a jittery Latin flavoured rave-up reminiscent of Nuggets era stomp, with a lyric that takes LA’s famous propensity for earth tremors as a metaphor for the personal stresses of modern life.
For an avowedly apolitical guitar slinger this may be one of Petty’s more pointed albums. Just a quick perusal of the song titles – ‘Forgotten Man’, ‘Shadow People’, ‘Burnt Out Town’ – gives a taste of this white hot ‘state of the union’ address. That said, Petty’s strength as a songwriter has always been his ability to use the well-drawn detail of ordinary lives to echo a larger story.
Take ‘Red River’. A growling bassline and crashing minor chords set the scene for a snapshot of New Weird America, and a character worthy of Flannery O’Connor. The song’s subject, apparently an adherent of a fundamentalist Christian sect hangs a ‘3D Jesus in a picture frame’, ‘shakes a snake above her hair’ and ‘talks in tongues when no-one’s there’. We can only presume she also votes Tea Party and own several guns. But even for this tangled web of psycho-religious neuroses redemption lies in the ‘clean and cold’ waters of the titular river.
Hypnotic Eye is not all pile driven angst. ‘Full Grown Boy’ is a light fingered jazz strut, featuring a nicely underplayed vocal and a languid Mike Campbell guitar solo, while ‘Sins Of My Youth’ floats on a bossa rhythm and drips with bittersweet memories.
Fans of Petty’s more sparkling pop inflected albums (often co-created with the likes of ELO’s Jeff Lynne or Eurythmic Dave Stewart) may not warm to this latest set, but plenty will enjoy the stripped back garage grit and the big heart that beats within.