Editor’s Note: We recently looked at the “last” album from a number of big names in rock. The responses were pretty interesting, so we thought we’d dig deeper into another final project. Let us know what you think in the comments.
Tom Petty formed the Heartbreakers in 1976 in Gainesville, Florida. Their sound was well-grounded Southern Rock or maybe Folk Rock, but always with an eye towards staying relevant. His style was stripped-down: “music we could replicate on stage”, as Petty often said. Though the band cycled through a few lineup changes, Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Trench were there from the beginning. Rob Blair (bassist) started with the group, stepped out in 1981, and was replaced by Howie Epstein, who left the band just before he died. Blair stepped back in on bass and remained with the band until the end. Finally, original drummer Stan Lynch was replaced by Steve Ferrone in 1995.
Just look at this list of classic songs that Tom and the Heartbreakers were able to string together across nearly three decades: “Breakdown”, “American Girl”, “Waiting”, “Refugee”, “Learning to Fly”, “Don’t Do Me Like That”, “You Got Lucky”, “Change of Heart”, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, and “Don’t Come Around Here No More”. Petty also released a solo album Full Moon Fever (1989), which included the hits “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, “Yer So Bad”, “I Won’t Back Down”, and “Free Fallin’”, and followed that with another solo album Wildflowers which yielded the hit “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” No question that with or without the Heartbreakers, Petty had a penchant for writing great music. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, the first year they were eligible to enter. But in all this time, they never had a Number One album.
That is, until the release of what would become their 13th and last album, Hypnotic Eye, in 2014. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, the Canadian Billboard, and US Top Rock Albums –and was nominated for the 2015 Grammy category Best Rock Album, losing to Morning Phase by Beck.
Hypnotic Eye was envisioned as a throwback to earlier Heartbreaker albums that were more the guitar-driven, crunch, and pop, four-on-the-floor works. That’s not to say there are not a surprising variety of other styles on the LP. It’s the variety that kept me interested.
One of the best tracks is “American Dream Plan B” which is an ear-wormy, crunchy pastiche of life in the US, including the lyrics: “Well, my mama so sad, Daddy’s just mad, ‘Cause I ain’t gonna have the chance he had.”
“Fault Lines” reminds me of a lost Doors song in the vein of “L.A. Woman”: bass-driven but instead with Petty’s major-key chorus. “Red River” is a classic Petty take on a love interest much in line with Mary Jane, but instead this time it’s a gypsy, with a black cat, and a gris-gris stick.
“Full Grown Boy” is a surprisingly soft and jazzy minimalist work that might be something Atlanta Rhythm Section would have released, with the major-7th chorus ending and a slinky guitar solo. “Power Drunk” sounds like an Eric Clapton blues treatment, but again peppered with what I call “Tom Petty chords.” “Forgotten Man”, has the “How Soon is Now” distorted guitar sound that the Smiths made famous, but with a rock treatment and a blazing tight solo.
“Sins of My Youth” is a beautiful love song with some of the most creative lyrics Petty ever penned: “When the past gets up in your face, memories slide out of place, all those things that were hidden away, ain’t so bad in the light of day… Let me tell you the truth, I love you more than the sins of my youth.”
“You Get Me High” is another pop-pop-chocka-pop rocker that sounds like a John Mellencamp relic. “Burnt Out Town” is a Muddy Waters-like three-chord blues, with talk-singing from Petty lamenting about living in a corrupt little burg.
Finally, “Shadow People” closes out the album, a slinky rocker that begins with an upright piano and then switches to a growly guitar and a pulsing bass line – and finally ends with Petty lamenting “waiting for the sun to be straight overhead ‘til we ain’t got no shadows at all.”
And what can’t be said about Mike Campbell’s guitar playing? Technically proficient and with exactly the right level of punch – he avoids the thrashing solos or showmanship that might distract from the vibe of the melody. Campbell can play a variety of styles and often picks exactly the right notes, a la George Harrison, to get the job done. He was one of the core sounds that made The Heartbreakers unique.
If you’re like me, it’s not often you can listen to an album and nearly every song is something you’re happy to hear over and over. It’s clear that before his passing, Petty was still on fire with songwriting and lyricism. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers went out with one of their best albums, even if not all of the songs will be a radio hit, but it reminds us even more of what we lost.
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