If you’re a rock star of a certain age, you might figure that there is no longer much point in releasing new material. You can usually expect decent first-week sales from the 50,000 or so baby boomers who still buy albums, followed by a nosebleed descent down the charts. Your new songs will serve as a convenient excuse for arena show bathroom breaks before being quietly dropped from the set list before the start of the outdoor touring season. And that’s if things go well.
Propelled by a combination of forward momentum and sheer orneriness, Tom Petty is one of a few classic rock artists still regularly releasing new original material, and lots of it; solo albums, live souvenirs, records with his longtime band the Heartbreakers. He’s never really had a comeback, because he never really went away. He’s always been there, an immutable fact, like gravity.
Petty and the Heartbreakers’ new album, “Hypnotic Eye,” is their best in more than a decade, which is saying something. Their preceding release, 2010’s classic blues-inspired “Mojo,” was probably more fun to make than it is to listen to, although even Petty’s lesser albums are unfailingly workmanlike and respectable. Even at the height of his early 1990s top-hatted, dragging-around-a-dead-Kim-Basinger VH1 ridiculousness, Petty had a grave, curmudgeonly dignity.
Petty recently told Rolling Stone that “Hypnotic Eye” is a (mostly unconscious) throwback to his first two albums, “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” and “You’re Gonna Get It!” — both of which are sainted in hindsight, and with good reason. It’s become commonplace for old-
timers to self-reference (and sometimes painstakingly re-create) their iconic early work — because it’s easier, because it’s safer, because they’re as nostalgic for the younger versions of themselves as their fans are. That Petty is backed by one of the finest and most singular bands in the world in a way only complicates things: Mike Campbell’s film noir guitars and Benmont Tench’s nimble organ work, which are familiar to anyone who has listened to classic rock radio in the past 30 years, turn these new songs into instant nostalgia delivery systems.
Petty and the Heartbreakers’ first two albums were released during the early years of the Carter administration. While “Hypnotic Eye,” recorded over a period of three years starting in 2011, is a companion piece only in the broadest sense, it’s a similarly lean, cantankerous album of rootsy rock-and-roll that taps into the same feelings of restlessness and economic discontent. Petty eulogizes an unreachable future (“Mama’s so sad / Daddy’s just mad / ’cause I ain’t gonna have the chance he had”) on the howling opener “American Dream Plan B,” he “feel[s] like a four-letter word” on the “American Girl”-reminiscent “Forgotten Man” and he examines the excesses of power on the rangy, self-explanatory “Power Drunk.”
Bruce Springsteen — Petty’s only real living analog, now that Bob Dylan has officially gone around the bend — addresses similar grievances, but at a benevolent remove. Petty is in the trenches, rattling around loser towns “stealing gas with a garden hose” (on the back porch blues “Burnt Out Town”), and plotting his eventual escape (“I see what I want / I go after it,” he sings from behind a wall of old school, Stone Temple Pilots-style vocal distortion on “American Dream Plan B”).
For many artists, rock stardom is a slow-mo dive into Otherness, but Petty, the evergreen Everyman, has long benefited from an unwritten contract with fans: He resists becoming a well-fed, self-satisfied caricature of himself, and they pretend not to notice that he has been a rich white guy living in Malibu longer than he hasn’t been a rich white guy living in Malibu.
Petty holds up his end of the bargain here, occupying these songs from the inside out, serving up equal helpings of righteous pique, withering disdain, unexpected tenderness (on the expansive ballad “Sins of My Youth”) and occasional optimism.
Unlike, say, Steven Tyler, Petty still makes for a credible rock star well into his 60s, partly because he has always sounded the way he does now: old and weathered and wistful, even in his youth. “Hypnotic Eye” doesn’t like feel like a retreat into the safety of his back catalogue, but rather a natural extension of it, as if he figured he might as well reclaim a past he can’t outrun.
Stewart is a freelance writer.