Tom Petty's excellent new CD didn't catch me at first, but that is my fault. As often happens with me, the first listen didn't grab me, but, in this case, the cards were stacked even more against my enjoyment. Although I tend to be liberal in most every way possible, it is as a music listener that my more conservative side comes out.
Thinking more broadly, though, I think we are all of us a bit more skeptical of the latter-day output of our favorite rock stars, expecting to be disappointed, and then overwhelmingly pleased when we aren't.
For Petty, Hypnotic Eye represents (allegedly) a return to a more rock-based sound, a critical commentary on his most recent previous releases--Mojo, Highway Companion, and The Last DJ. While the former was supposedly a blues album, the solo effort a self-conscious autobiographical CD, and the latter a concept album, to these ears all three were classic, rocking, if somewhat underrated Petty material.
So when I put on Hypnotic Eye, I guess I was expecting Damn The Torpedoes or some such, and this band, good as they are, ain't doin' that at this stage of life. One of the problems with rockers is that we keep hoping, I think, for young men's albums when neither we nor the band are any longer young.
But that wasn't even the problem, or problems, really. When I first heard the new CD, I had my phone on "Shuffle," without realizing it, and so the songs came at me in whatever order they felt like. You think that doesn't matter? I'm here to tell you that it does. When I first heard the disc sequenced as intended, the 1-2-3 punch of "American Dream Plan B," "Fault Lines," and "Red River" revealed the CD's true rock intent. And on my phone, there is no break between songs, so these guitar-driven songs blasted at me one after another.
The other problem was that I'd didn't listen to it loud enough. Even many of my most rock-devoted friends seem not to understand, or have forgotten, that rock is meant to be played loud. Good rock is not background music. It does not live below the conversation. Good rock is better than conversation. There I said it. And Petty is good rock.
A song like "Fault Lines", with its insistent beat, not only has a lyric ("I've got a few of my own fault lines running under my life") that demands our attention, but it also has music interludes, like Mike Campbell's bare guitar, that mirror those lyrics.
For me, the emotional core of Hypnotic Eye is "Red River," an apparent rewrite of McGuinn's "Lover Of The Bayou," that adds a romantic element to the mythic Cajun woman depiction. The song is both vintage Petty and current Petty, with a rock-bottom bass and a vocal that sounds like the years haven't happened.
And I know this because for the third listen, I put on a pair of headphones. I have alluded before to the fact that the modern world gives us increasingly-few opportunities to listen to music without distraction. Often, only headphones, in whatever location we are willing to shut out the world (which doesn't want to be shut out), allow us to hear music as it was meant to be heard.
One of the joys of this CD is the consistent quality of the songs. I have plenty of Petty offerings where he seems to have gotten bored somewhere 2/3 to 3/4 of the way in. Not here. Every song distinguishes itself sonically from the others, even as he adopts rhythms and riffs from times past. I don't know of the song here that doesn't work; that doesn't mean that all of them are favorites, but by now I have certain Petty moves that I hope for in songs, and when I get those, I like the song even better.
Still, the highlights of the CD continue top to bottom. Later songs like "Forgotten Man," "Sins Of My Youth," and "Shadow People" all stand out as either economical or expansive rockers that put at least the slightest twist on the standard rock song.
There was a time when I considered Tom Petty kind of a 2nd-tier talent. His lyrics seemed simplistic compared to the giants in the game. But now is now, and I suspect that Petty is the premiere chronicler of American life among the older generation of American rockers. While Dylan enjoys the private jokes in his head and Springsteen is a bit locked into the working man ethos, Petty feels like like a man who has been a lot of places and has built songs around his observations.
Certainly, "Shadow People," his study of the paranoid gun culture riding in the car next to you, has no parallel in modern music. It is creepy and unsettling, but it also makes you realize that you already knew what he is telling. He just makes you confront it. And anyone who can do that not only remains vital, but, words and music considered together, I'm not sure I've heard anything better this year.