The People's Rocker Comes Down To Earth, Finally


Howsoever inoffensive and professionally courteous, the mere existence of Tom Petty has to be - for some - metaphysical bete noire. At sixty-three, he hasn’t got much time left to cut his Dark Side of the Moon, his Music From Big Pink, his Astral Weeks, his Blonde on Blonde, his Statement Album maaaaan. And what kind of self-respecting rock icon (post-Help!, if we’re being fair here) should stake his reputation on blegh! a greatest hits comp? This is America, goddammit! Give us your tired, white, ponderous tomes! Give me Let It Be or give me death! 

Okay, everyone calm down. I’d like to ask you rockist trolls to slink back to the old library rancor of your subterranean homesick velvet undergrounds for a minute while I discuss the latest album by, yes I am writing these words, the greatest white male singles artist (post-Elvis, if we’re being fair here) of the preceding American century - and therefore one of its most important artists, period. (Remember what I said about designated hitsmakers.)

Just why he’s earned this distinction ought to be more obvious than it is, ought to occasionally enter the conversation. Tom’s always been enough of a congested sadsack - and his mute accomplice Mike Campbell enough of a slick indulgence on guitar - that the Heartbreakers were able to keep  blues rhythm as close to the middle of things as any other multiplatinum, Led Zeppelin notwithstanding. But unlike Zeppelin, Petty and co. never strayed too far into the mine for metal, didn't give up on populism, wouldn’t back down to music execs, never violated a groupie with a baby shark. None of that. They just drove a groove through the center of pop music’s most fertile vein - with an internationally sustainable flair for clean arena locomotion - peppering in few enough oddities (synth beat in “You Got Lucky,” a sitar in “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” surf riffage in “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” a really loud harmonium in “Refugee,”) to keep singles distinct and contemporary. Though, notably, no one single's so afflicted with the fiddle-faddle to warrant any brand but ‘perceptibly neutral.’ Always clean, always neutral - which is of course another way of saying universal. There's good reason blues undergirds most every major pop styling of the late 20th century. 

Oh, and hooks. Did I mention those? Hooks. At least ten perfect ones.

Hypnotic Eye, the first number one LP of Petty’s thirty-seven year career, and the one I wish I’d had the balls to declare coming, keeps the ever perilous fiddle-faddle to a minimumest (“These go to .11!”), which is why none of the new tracks here are weird enough (read: abundantly transcendent) to march unabated into the canon. Well, none except maybe the co-written Petty/Campbell “Fault Lines,” a ZZ Top ringer that makes up for a merely good vocal hook with a choral riff lifted (I am not kidding you) note-for-note from the Get Smart theme at the 2:35 mark. I’ve heard it probably twenty times today - the first fifteen of which in hysterical search for the superhero theme song that matched the riff. 60s Batman? No. James Bond? Nope. Jurassic Park? Nah. Pink Panther? Ugh, no. Get Smart? YES! YES! I’M LIKE SOME KIND OF SPY DETECTIVE.

And that’s just great. But here’s the thing: this go-round, I’m not asking for that sterile quickie in the back of his Westphalia. Hyponotic Eye doesn’t need “Fault Lines” or any one of the other cardiac events singular to the Heartbreakers. No, for the first time in his career (or post-Damn The Torpedoes, if we're being fair here), Petty’s sustaining a groove on a whole album. Clean, balanced, neutral as always, but through-composed in a manner that suggests the frantic rock n roller he never appeared to be on the surface aged into the staid professional we always took him for.

Despite this, he manages a bit of everything: egalitarian tumult, which gives way when it pleases to power chord screeds on love and bad nostalgia, to the kind of eerie folk rock torpor no one’s much heard since Modern Times (check out “Sins of My Youth,” and “Shadow People” if you’re looking for pallid twins to match Dylan’s ghastly “Ain’t Talkin’” - things I didn’t know I crave).

While we’re on the topic of Dylan, there’s evidence to suggest sixty-three isn’t that old. If Hypnotic Eye is anything like an indication, then perhaps that Statement Album is actually on the way. In fact, I think it may be.

Therefore, it is my professional and well-intentioned advice as a music critic that all you rockists out there hold your breath for the next one. Very tightly. No cheating. Please.