The sun rises in the East, death and taxes will get you every time, and Tom Petty won't let you down. It's also really easy to take what he does, what he makes seem so effortless, for granted. Some artists just have a built-in reliability, and fans of Petty have few stinkers to deal with in a 13-album stretch of consistency that reaches back to the '70s.
"Hypnotic Eye" (Reprise) is a more concise, tighter package of prime Petty than its loose-limbed 2010 predecessor, "Mojo," a more jam-oriented set than the singer normally delivers. His latest returns to Heartbreakers perennials: Mike Campbell's mastery of the riff, Ron Blair's understated gift for threading melodic bass lines through Steve Ferrone's reliably on-point drumming, the casual feel for musical Americana, from the bluesy grime of "Burnt Out Town" to the jazzy balladry of "Full Grown Boy."
Then there's Petty's voice. Though he has lived in California for decades, he remains a child of the South, and when his drawl breaks into a raspy growl, you can feel the pulse of a song rise, the anger bubbling to the surface. Petty stays contained, but there's a sense that things could pop any second. It's there in the diminished expectations outlined in "American Dream Plan B" and the has-been's lament "Forgotten Man."
"I feel like a four-letter word," Petty snarls, a stray cat in no mood to be taken for granted anymore, funneled through a pithy, combustible combination of riff and drive. Many of Petty's character sketches, like those in "Red River" and the spooky "Shadow People," describe the marginalized, the down-and-outers, folks without a voice. "I ain't on the left, and I ain't on the right, I ain't even sure I got a dog in this fight," one declares.
The singer imbues his characters with resilience; they're adults who have seen the world for what it is, and realize that it's not a place in which they can thrive. But they're not giving up. They keep moving forward. In the same way, Petty's music stands strong against a tide of new trends, fresh sounds, fabulous makeovers. His defiance underlines the music, animates it, makes it feel vital even if it may sound familiar. "I ain't afraid of what people say/ Ain't afraid of the great deception," he sings on the deceptively light-hearted "U Get Me High." Petty rolls on.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
3 stars (out of 4)