I forget that Tom Petty is dead. Growing up, Petty’s music was all over FM radio, and his videos were in regular rotation on MTV. His music reminds me of late-night car rides down winding backroads and frigid early morning commutes in my dad’s Chevy. I saw Petty live in concert in 1995 and then pretty much quit following his career. The last Petty album I’d bought and listened to was 1999’s ECHO. I remember thinking it was decent for a legacy act. Yes, in 1999, I had written Tom Petty off. And the rest of the world seemed to as well. I didn’t see Petty on TV, and the radio only played the same seven or so hits.
When HYPNOTIC EYE came out, I noticed that it was mainly getting positive reviews, but I was wrapped up in a cross-country move and finding a new job. Then, in January of this year, I scheduled a video chat with my friend and fellow music blogger, Lisa Peers.* Rather than sort of stutter our way through yet another awkward Zoom call, I proposed that we pick an album to discuss. Knowing that Lisa is a huge Tom Petty fan, I let her choose one of his late-period albums. Happily, she chose 2014’s HYPNOTIC EYE.
All I knew before listening to HYPNOTIC EYE was that it was the final Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker album and that critics at the time had hailed it as a “return to form.” My first listen was underwhelming. The songs all seem to fall into the same mid-tempo, and the song hooks weren’t hitting. Had I not needed to digest this record to discuss it with a super-friend properly, I likely would have just written it off. And that would have been a shame because HYPNOTIC EYE is an excellent record.
The chugging “American Dream Plan B” opens the album. It’s a harder, more raw song than I was expecting. There’s a weird vocal effect on Petty’s voice for some of the song, and initially, I was worried this was going to be crutch found all over the album, but this fear proved unfounded. Petty sounds fantastic on HYPNOTIC EYE. Though there isn’t a theme, per se, HYPNOTIC EYE does seem like a meditation on getting older. On “American Dream Plan B” Petty voices his bemusement at his staggering success, while on “Fault Lines” and “Sins of My Youth,” he addresses his failings. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff for a rockers’ late-period album, but Petty puts a nice spin on all these cliches. I like the comparison of a fault line and a personal flaw/fault. The bluesy ditty “Full Grown Boy” features lyrics about both being a “full-grown boy” but a full-grown “changing every day.” And I think that might be the key to understanding why HYPNOTIC EYE turned out to be such a good record–Petty never quit evolving both as an artist and as a man.
I love “Red River,” a witchy-woman track that would fit nicely on FULL MOON FEVER. Likewise, the album closer, “Shadow People,” feels like a song I’ve grown up hearing my whole life. Even in 2014, Petty was still minting classics. I’m also delighted that the final Heartbreakers album has a pot reference (“U Get Me High”). It would have been a shame if Petty’s last dance with the Heartbreakers hadn’t also included Mary Jane. Really, there’s only one dud on the whole album, “Burnt Out Town.” This, the second to last track is basically a parody of blues music with painfully obvious rhyming lyrics. When I chatted with Lisa, I had her guess which track I liked the least; she could easily guess this one. It’s a bad track. Luckily, the album doesn’t close with it, so Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers get to ride off into the sunset on a winner.
Listening to HYPNOTIC EYE in 2021 made miss Tom Petty. After the first few listens, when the songs started to click with me, I couldn’t help but think, “Man, this is great, I can’t wait to hear the next album…” Guys like Tom Petty are so good for so long we take them for granted. I hate that I slept on this record for so long, don’t make the same mistake.