When classic rock bands get several decades deep into their career, it’s not uncommon to start hearing them talk about “getting back to their roots” when making new albums. More often than not, that’s code for “getting back to the style of music that brought them the biggest hits”—in other words, attempting to recapture the style and subject matter of their youth, emboldened by the benefit of age and hindsight.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers have never been that kind of band. In fact, the group resists recapping past glories; each of its LPs exhibits distinct creative progress. With that being said, Hypnotic Eye’s baseline is obviously its previous record, 2010’s blues explosion Mojo. Guitarist Mike Campbell’s loose-cannon riffs are gritty and smoky—especially on the bar-band boogie “All You Carry,” the loping strut of “U Get Me High” and the smoldering “Power Drunk”—while Benmont Tench adds understated organ surges or keyboards to the album’s bluesiest moments.
Tench is also at the forefront of Hypnotic Eye’s most interesting detours: He adds swinging lounge piano to the murmuring jazz tune “Full Grown Boy” and jauntier, more evocative keys of all hues to the album-closing “Shadow People.” Unfortunately, his contributions can’t redeem the latter song; a turgid tempo and meandering guitar jags make it feel like a messy blues jam with no real endgame. “Shadow People” also underscores the record’s biggest weakness: its inconsistency. The Texas roadhouse grit of “Burnt Out Town” is generic—if not bordering on the cheesy—while the shimmering, snake-charming ballad “Sins Of My Youth” aims for depth (“I love you more than the sins of my youth”) and lands somewhere around sonic wallpaper.
This second-half slump is frustrating, because Hypnotic Eye’s highlights rank among Petty’s best work. “Fault Lines” is a psych-tinged admission of the shaky, uncertain ground on which we all live, while “All You Carry” is about casting off emotional baggage in favor of a brighter future. And the romantic “Red River” boasts one of Petty’s trademark mystical female characters—“She’s got a rosary and a rabbit’s foot / A black cat bone that keeps her good”—a white-hot guitar solo during the bridge, and the record’s most indelible choruses.
As the strength of its catalog indicates, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers still makes albums for the right reasons—mainly when inspiration strikes and the group is musically energized. Still, even the best are prone to imperfections. And so Hypnotic Eye ends up a dynamic mini-album—but doesn’t quite sustain its momentum for an entire full-length.