As Tom Petty told us three decades and 10 albums ago, on Southern Accents, he’s got his “own way of talking.” He doesn’t drawl quite like the other Floridians, and among the words he pronounces in a wholly unique fashion is “town.” It comes up a lot in his songs -- often when he’s singing about hopeless little burgs he or his characters long to escape. That’s precisely the premise of “Burnt Out Town,” the penultimate track on Hypnotic Eye, his excellent new album with longtime sidemen the Heartbreakers.
“This is a burnt out town,” Petty sings, “filled with dirty looks.” Just about everyone in this place is crooked, and there’s not much Petty can do but shrug, pout a little, and get back to siphoning gas with his garden hose. Bluesy and meandering, the music isn’t indicative of the big, bright rockers found throughout Hypnotic Eye, but in terms of basic storyline -- well intentioned dude takes stock of man’s depravity and decides to muddle on -- it says a lot about where Tom is these days.
In a sense, it’s where he’s always been. Petty is more a realist than a romantic; his best songs are about fearing the worst, hoping for the best, and getting lucky sometimes. His best songs are also about three or four minutes long and loaded with licks and melodies befitting of a Southern misfit reared on Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, and the Byrds. All of those influences coalesce on Hypnotic Eye, a tight, spirited follow-up to 2010’s bluesier, less essential Mojo.
Singing over punchy backings sure to get folks reminiscing about Damn the Torpedoes and Hard Promises, two of his early classics, Petty takes stock of his life, thumbs his nose at cops and parents, and decides he’s happy chasing his foolish rock ‘n’ roll dreams. He’s done some things he’s maybe not proud of (see: “Sins of My Youth”) but come out with his soul intact. At the very least, he’s not one of those unfeeling, self-oriented, materialistic “Shadow People” he sniffs at in the final track. The worst thing about those monsters: They’re all around. They may look like Tom, but they don’t talk like him.
Read on to get our track-by-track take on Petty’s latest serving of deceptively simple rock ‘n’ roll profundity.
“American Dream Plan B”: The sludgy riff is the first clue Petty has come to rock. “I’ve got a dream / I’m gonna fight ‘til I get it,” he sings on the chorus, as snarling guitar gives way to a classic Heartbreakers chorus. It’s a song about “betting on happiness” rather than taking the safe path toward the complacency your parents prefer. Petty calls himself a fool, but he’d never place his chips anywhere else.
“Fault Lines”: When you’ve been through a few natural disasters, like Malibu resident Tom Petty has, you don’t sing about fault lines lightly. Here, Petty uses plate tectonics as a metaphor for inner turmoil, and yet even as the earth threatens to swallow him whole, he grooves out with some fuzzy spy-movie guitar and go-go bass grooving. That “old acrobat on a faulty cable?” That’s Petty -- still swinging with the best of ‘em.
“Red River”: Another big guitar hook, another sweet chorus. This time, Petty’s got himself a superstitious woman who’s into talismans and speaking in tongues. Tom has a better way to save her soul: “So meet me tonight by the Red River / where the water is clear and cold.” It’s a rock ‘n’ roll baptism, complete with guitarist Mike Campbell soloing from the banks.
“Full Grown Boy”: The Heartbreakers show off a light, jazzy touch as Petty lays back in the grass, contemplating love and aging and what it all means. It’s like Dylan’s Love and Theft track “Bye & Bye,” only way simpler: “How am I going to tell her that I love her when words don’t mean a thing?” he asks. Good question.
“All You Can Carry”: As with “Fault Lines,” Petty works in some extreme-weather metaphors. In a literal sense, he’s remembering the night California wildfires nearly claimed his home and all of his belonging. As mean blues riffs lead to another poppy chorus, though, Petty is really talking about moving on and saving your soul. “Take what you can,” he advises, sage-like as always. “Leave the past behind.”
“Power Drunk”: The interplay between organist Benmont Tench and bassist Ron Blair is classic Heartbreakers. Campbell owns the chorus with a fuzzball riff, and Petty gives them all a reason for jamming with a spot-on lyric about how men turn wicked once you give them a little authority.
“Forgotten Man”: After opening chords meant to invoke “American Girl,” Petty makes a sharp turn and drives off in something like the Who’s “Magic Bus.” Campbell sticks in a terrific solo, and as Petty wallows in “pain that lingers on,” it’s obvious he’s not feeling too bad.
“Sins Of My Youth”: “I’m worn and wounded but still the same,” Petty assures us, even as the Heartbreakers morph into something new: the mysterious house band in a film noir lounge. Like any noir hero, Petty has a tortured past that’s threatening his present: “I love you more than the sins of my youth.”
“U Get Me High”: There’s a feeling Tom remembers from his youth, and he doesn’t want to lose it. “Inspiration at my fingertips,” he sings. “Imagination running wild.” He may be going on about a girl, but it’s just as likely he’s singing to Elvis or the Stones or some other rock ‘n’ roller who changed his brain chemistry and set him down this crazy career path. “I ain’t afraid of what people say,” he sings, rightfully emboldened by the Heartbreakers’ sturdy-as-ever bar-band rocking. “I ain’t afraid of the great deception.”
“Burnt Out Town”: As the Heartbreakers work up the mean, curled-lip blues boogie that begins the track, Petty can’t help but smile. “Yeah!” he grunts. Not that he’s got much to be happy about. He’s gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing he ever does. “This is a burnt out town / it’s going down, but no one knows,” sings Petty, the local longhair who's way wiser than everyone thinks.
“Shadow People”: With bass and organ straight out of Petty’s first single, 1976’s “Breakdown,” “Shadow People” is about the seemingly normal folks all around us who’ve lost their humanity. At 6:37, this one’s long for a Petty song, but hang in for the wonderful coda, where Petty picks up an acoustic and sings, “Waiting for the sun to be straight overhead / ‘til we ain’t got no shadows at all.” Spoken like a true Sunshine State rebel.