Tom Petty’s half-swallow, half-yowl singing voice has been part of the American rock landscape for nearly four decades. Classic-rock staples like “Refugee” comingle in the collective pop consciousness with MTV-era smashes like “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “Free Fallin’.” His weathered voice and his band’s smooth professionalism have made the world-weary aspects of his music go down more smoothly — think of the “rebel without a clue” depicted in “Into the Great Wide Open,” or how “American Girl”s second verse, depicting despondent loneliness, undercuts the anthemic brio.
On Hypnotic Eye, Petty’s 13th album with the Heartbreakers, his depictions of American life on the fringes of hope are more fleshed out than usual, and the emotions experienced by each song’s characters, from the talisman-collecting antagonist of “Red River” to the confused-by-the-world observer of “Shadow People,” are heightened by his band’s cool, almost off-the-cuff musicianship. Hypnotic Eye is fluidly, expertly played by Petty and his longtime musical companions — particularly lead guitarist Mike Campbell, whose precisely placed licks and minimalist solos serve as a Greek chorus to his bandleader’s more acerbic observations. The easy, bluesy feel of earlier Heartbreakers albums is still present, but on Hypnotic Eye it is sharpened to a fine point, with tracks like the chugging “Power Drunk” and the self-lacerating boogie “Fault Lines” serving as particular standouts.
“American Dream Part B” opens the album on a note of defiance, but the sleek yet desperate “All You Can Carry” probably sums up Petty and his band’s mission statement: “Take what you can and leave the past behind/ We gotta run,” he sings, before Campbell’s guitar comes in with a charging solo. That discontent-fueled determination to keep pushing forward is why Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ new work remains so vital; they’ve survived the radio age and the video age, and are pushing into whatever era we’re in now.