Words by Russell Carstens
Tom Petty is one of America’s most highly-regarded songwriters. Although I’ve had him on my “listen to” list for years, I never got around to doing so. Well, shame on me. After listening to Hypnotic Eye, I see what all the fuss is about.
“American Dream Plan B” opens the album with a simple, driving riff and distorted vocals. These give the mix a gritty, rough-as-pavement topping that I certainly didn’t expect. Worth mentioning is Petty’s skill for tasteful restraint on every song – the instruments are balanced evenly, leaving the mix open. Petty and The Heartbreakers know how to let the empty space do the talking. During the chorus, I get the impression Petty is representing the American public as he sings, “I got a dream, I’m gonna fight till I get it.” On “Fault Lines” he sings about personal imperfections hidden beneath the surface of personality. A guitar solo with cutting, treble-infused immediacy cuts right through this uptempo song.
Petty has a way of borrowing from other genres while keeping the overall picture his own. In “Red River” he channels Neil Young & Crazy Horse on Zuma. Its bridge slows down with a snaky guitar line fitting of the title. Later, the jazzy intro of “Full Grown Boy” is sprinkled with piano and drum brushes as Petty croons about the full moon. The subdued, jazzy guitar solo would fit perfectly on Moonlight in Vermont by Johnny Smith. This gives the album some welcomed dimension. Even the tremolo-heavy intro of “Forgotten Man” may trick fans into thinking Petty has been influenced by My Bloody Valentine, as the brief guitar sound perfectly fits the ethereal vibe of Loveless. However, the tables turn and the band kicks into a verse where Petty proclaims that he feels “like a forgotten man, a four letter word…”
Petty’s hooks are so simple, yet effective. He makes it sound easy, but any songwriter (underground or well-known) will attest that this is one of the most challenging parts of drawing in listeners. His strengths aren’t flashy, but they don’t need to be. He and his band are masters of serving the song through restraint.
Hypnotic Eye is a great album of solid songwriting whose lyrics fans will relate to, and it scored Petty his first ever #1 record. Simplicity wins again.
© July 29th, 2014
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